Carbonated Cash

Drink up, kids. Keep those soda dollars coming.

It was the school districts that approached Coca-Cola about exclusive soft drink contracts, not the other way around, Coca-Cola spokeswoman Debbie Moody says.

Moody says the exclusive agreement merely takes the previous contracts with individual schools and extends them to the entire district.

Moody and Coleman note that colleges have long had exclusive promotional agreements with soda companies.

"It's easy to understand. School districts are reaching out to local business," Moody says. "They have to find computer equipment or scholarships, or supplement education needs, and they contact us. My local bottlers have always had a strong relationship with these school districts ... We are partners with the schools now."

Critics wonder if the new wave of "partnerships" is actually an unholy alliance that will undermine the traditional independence enjoyed by education. Some of them describe the contracts as districts selling students out to the highest bidder, regardless of the health consequences.

State Representative Scott Hochberg of Houston, the chief number cruncher behind last session's school finance legislation, is troubled by the thought of principals and administrators forced into the role of fundraisers.

"Does this harm education?" Hochberg asks. "And if there is nothing wrong with it, then maybe we should do it everywhere. I can just see it: the Fuddrucker's State Capitol Building. What a concept."

George Scott of the Tax Research Association questions whether these multimillion-dollar contracts might not create long-term funding disparities among school districts as cola companies go after the more affluent districts and shun others.

Houston ISD is currently negotiating a cola contract, although the less affluent urban districts have been far less successful in securing contracts than have better-off suburban districts. Fort Worth ISD threw out a cola contract earlier in the year because it wasn't lucrative enough.

"School districts are talking up these contracts, but I think they're really overrated," says one administrator, who asked for anonymity. "My numbers showed the money, either way, is practically the same. The only difference is that you get to see it earlier in the exclusive contract."

The Center for Commercial-Free Public Education, based in Oakland, California, has been one of the most ardent critics of soft drink contracts. Executive director Mercedes Graham said the advertiser often ties more cola consumption to bigger financial incentives.

"Sure, these contracts are lucrative, but what price do we set on our kids?" Graham asks. "Do we sell them out for $100 million? For $10 million? Or do we sell them out for $1,000 apiece? Where do we plan to draw the line?"

Despite the hefty contract sums, some health authorities say students later may pay substantially for overdoing the pause that refreshes now.

In its Liquid Candy report, issued in late October, the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest warns that too many kids are replacing the enriching benefits of milk with soft drinks.

An epidemic of osteoporosis could be looming, because youngsters are losing their needed calcium intake. Bone mass typically peaks by age 20. It is too late after that, especially for women, to "catch up" with calcium-rich products, the center said.

The national Soft Drink Association describes colas as containing 90 percent water and natural sugars, but CSPI disputes that sweet outlook. A typical canned nondiet soda contains as much as nine teaspoons of sugar and is loaded with calories. High-sugar diets can promote everything from heart disease to tooth decay. Add to that the woes of the heavy soda drinkers: nervousness, rapid heartbeat and irritability.

That irritability showed itself in another way in the Spring Branch district, even though its soda contract gained approval with little fanfare and virtually no opposition.

Within days of the agreement, Coca-Cola had stripped Memorial High School of non-Coke vending machines. It replaced cans with larger and more expensive bottles and boosted the price on remaining canned soft drinks.

Senior Raha Naddaf and her fellow staff members on the Anvil student newspaper labeled the forced monopoly "a sellout to big corporations" and a way for the school district to use the spending habits of high school students "as a profit-making mechanism." "We predicted they would raise the prices on soft drinks in our editorial, and they did," Naddaf says. "They talk about the money that will come out of this deal, but we're not going to see any of it. If it's our money, we should be seeing some benefits from it."

There was a brief petition drive to try to bring Pepsi and Dr Pepper back to campus. Others spoke of setting up a table at lunch to hand out free Dr Peppers.

That flurry of frustration has now been largely forgotten, although references still can be heard occasionally in Naddaf's government class. Students say there ought to be a separation between Coke and state.

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