SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- At the National PTA's convention here this summer, delegates strolled through an exhibit hall of booths that promoted commercial products.
At most educational meetings, the booths are manned by textbook publishers, software companies and testing organizations. But the tone of the PTA's exhibit hall was established by candy companies that distributed free samples and urged PTA chapters to sell sweets to raise money.
Along with Mars, Nestle and Hershey, there was a Sugar Association booth with brochures refuting the "myths" that sugar causes hyperactivity, obesity, diabetes or tooth decay. "If your child loves sweet treats, there's no need to worry," the literature stated.
Shirley Igo, the National Parent-Teacher Association president, said that when schools cannot pay for their instructional programs PTAs help fill the gap, and candy sales are one way to do so.
Two years ago, investigators from the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, visited 19 schools and found that merchandise sales helped finance programs like school assemblies, field trips, teacher training and, in one case, a teacher's salary. In other districts, such sales and royalties from vending machines pay for after-school programs, arts and theater classes, instructional materials and computers.
Athletic teams and extracurricular clubs also raise money this way. Coaches have been known to tie grades to meeting candy-sale quotas, or to threaten students with loss of the chance to participate in sports or to qualify for varsity letters if sales fall short.
Barry Sackin is vice president of the American School Food Service Association, an organization of school lunch employees. Mr. Sackin said that when he was in charge of school cafeterias in Anaheim, Calif., he could always tell when a team or club had a fund-raising drive because regular lunch sales plummeted.
The Sugar Association is correct in stating that candy alone does not cause disease. Eaten in moderation and offset by exercise, sweets can be part of a balanced diet. But using candy to plug holes in school budgets discourages moderation, especially for children who do not exercise enough. Nutritional experts say that eating candy accustoms young children to sweet tastes and leads to demands for added sweetening in all foods. Sugar or substitutes like fructose should contribute no more than one-tenth of the calories in a child's diet, but intake typically exceeds that.
An even bigger potential danger to health than candy fund-raising drives is the placement of vending machines selling candy, high-fat snacks and soda in middle and high schools. Oft-proposed legislation before Congress would authorize the secretary of agriculture to prohibit such sales in schools on nutritional grounds. But the bills have been stymied.
Lobbyists for soft-drink and sugar producers have fought the bills, and so have the National School Boards Association and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, whose members say that the harm done by underfinanced educational programs would be greater than that done to health.
Some state legislators have tried to restrict sales of high-fat and high-sugar foods, but such proposals have usually been defeated by lobbyists and school officials. In Texas, a new rule will ban vending machines from the immediate vicinity of school lunchrooms, but imposes no restrictions on placement elsewhere in schools.
The GAO noted the rapid growth of the practice of signing contracts that give a single beverage company exclusive rights to sell drinks and advertise on school property. The ramifications are especially dangerous because soft-drink bottlers have increased the average container size to 20 ounces, giving children many more calories than they need and encouraging them to drink less milk or water than they should, substituting sodas and high-calorie sports drinks.
Are there alternatives?
Researchers from the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health placed healthier low-fat snacks, like pretzels, in school vending machines and then manipulated the prices.
As the low-fat snacks became cheaper, students bought more of them, suggesting that teen-agers can be encouraged to shift their purchases to healthier foods. But this would mean lower profit margins on the sales.
The promotion of unhealthy foods to schoolchildren will most likely increase because the public wants better instructional programs but will not provide the tax dollars to pay for them. The well-being of children is both nutritional and educational. Policies now encourage schools and their PTAs to sacrifice one of these for the other, with candy and soft-drink companies all too willing to help.
This article first appeared Wednesday in The New York Times.
Columnist Jules Witcover is on vacation.