The junk food industry often rules the school

AS AN education reporter and card-carrying member of the Education Writers Association, I'm subject to a constant barrage of calls and news releases promoting this or that product -- particularly the products schoolchildren eat and drink.

Last week it was an announcement from Snapple. The fruit drink company has a contract with New York City guaranteeing the schools $40.2 million a year from vending machine sales of Snapple drinks.


Snapple wanted me to know that the "quirky facts" found underneath each bottle top have been incorporated into a charades-like game they're offering that "the entire family can enjoy this summer" -- without having to buy Snapple.

The "Real Facts" under those bottle tops have taught children history, geography, science and current events, the news release said, but Snapple does have a "relatively high amount of sugar."


That's the point. At a time when experts warn of an obesity epidemic among the nation's schoolchildren, the schools are still peddling junk food and sugary drinks, many under exclusive contracts with Cadbury Schweppes (which owns Snapple), Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

The industry is not dumb. Its marketers know that kids are a captive audience until they're 16. If they can build brand loyalty among these young and impressionable students, they've got them for life.


Although legislation has been introduced in 24 states, including Maryland, that would replace junk food and high-sugar drinks with healthier choices -- or restrict student access to vending machines -- these contraptions (many of which double as billboards) are not likely to be kicked off campus.

Why? They're moneymakers, a $1.5 billion yearly bonanza. A large high school will earn $40,000 to $50,000 a year, getting back almost half of every dollar plunked in to its vending machines. That's unrestricted money that can be used for field trips, band uniforms, athletics, even health education.

Charles County, for example, signed a 10-year contract four years ago giving Coke exclusive vending rights for $175,000 a year. With the money, the county eliminated a $50 athletic fee and other fees charged for high-cost classes. And some meal prices were reduced.

Some Maryland districts allow schools to negotiate their own contracts, and most high schools have them. And most are dependent on them. Not only do the contracts dictate what brands of soda schools carry in their vending machines, they also specify the brands served at school-sponsored functions, including athletic events and fund-raisers.

Curbing consumption


Fortunately, there are countervailing forces. The federal school lunch program says food and drink of "nonnutritional value" can't be sold in cafeterias. Maryland goes a step further. Selling food with no nutritional value is banned on school days from midnight until the end of the last lunch period.

Meanwhile, principals and food service officials tell me that carbonated soft drinks are no longer the beverages of student choice, though teachers and administrators will most often push the Diet Pepsi or Diet Coke button.

But the kids like water and fruit juices, said Kathleen C. Lazor, Montgomery County director of food and nutrition services. "Kids are drinking more water than ever before," she said. "Don't put them down. Given good choices, they'll make the right one."

(Who would have guessed water would become the "in" drink? Check out the number of schools, colleges and universities putting their own labels on bottled spring water.)

Montgomery is so organized it should set up a wedding planning division. Before it revamped its vending policy this spring, it ran an experiment at seven schools, five of them high schools. It put the bad stuff in some machines and nutritional choices in others. Over time, students shifted to the nutritional drinks and snacks. Moreover, there was no decline in revenue, said Lazor.

And so when Montgomery students return to school next month, they'll find no sodas, less fat and sugar, and an expanded offering of healthier foods in the vending machines.


'Wellward' choices

Even the big boys are acting more responsibly. Pepsi has directed its bottlers not to sell soft drinks in elementary schools, and it's pushing what it calls "wellward" choices in middle and high school -- water, fruit juice and Gatorade.

But Pepsi isn't giving up on the beverage that made it famous. The company calls its "full-calorie" soft drink the "Fun-for-You" choice.

For the record

In last Sunday's column I said that Maryland and federal regulations prohibit the sale of food and drink of "non-nutritional value" in school cafeterias during breakfast and lunch hours.The prohibition, of course, applies only to vending machines that dispense carbonated soft drinks. As an Anne Arundel County school food worker and parent informed me, and as every parent knows, junk food of the most fattening kind is widely available in school cafeterias.