The Big Deal

Vending machines are leaving Texas school cafeterias. But the mother lode of "minimal nutritional value" has hardly gone away.

Fat little piggies -- that's who to blame for all this. The children of America have become a non-marching army of Pillsbury Doughboys after applying equal measures of junk food and no exercise. And they finally caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It seems that the USDA in reviewing its own rules and regulations in 2001 thought that maybe, just maybe, allowing students to chunk junk and guzzle soda pop in school might be contributing to the obesity epidemic sweeping the country and the accompanying rise of Type II diabetes.

So the agency set out new directives. And since the feds pay for a large portion of the free and subsidized school breakfasts and lunches, states generally listen to what they have to say.

The Texas Education Agency had a lot of questions about this new policy, says spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe. After finally getting its answers sorted out, the TEA announced a directive of its own April 22. Texas public schools would need to make sure that no "foods of minimal nutritional value" would be available in any areas where students sit down to eat.

Sounds great, right? The junk, the crap, the sugary, non-nutritional nothings were coming out. And although the directive doesn't go into effect till the start of the fall 2002 school year, kids were already returning from schools in recent weeks talking about how vending machines were being hauled away.

Unfortunately -- or fortunately, depending on where you stand on the issue -- the machines didn't go very far. Most were pulled around the corner leading out of the cafeteria and parked in the nearest hallway, where a quick plug-in brought them instantly back to life. Some were moved farther, maybe to the outside of a building. In nearly all cases, though, they weren't leaving campus.

Kids can still get to them -- it's only going to be a bit harder.

And just what foods meet the "minimal nutritional value" criteria are interesting as well. Besides sodas, there are water ices, which don't contain fruit juice, chewing gum and "certain candies," which include hard candy, jellies and gums, marshmallow candies, licorice, cotton candy and candy-coated popcorn.

Potato chips are not on the list, since they come from a vegetable. Snickers bars also are deemed to have nutritional value, since they contain nuts and milk.

Public reaction has been mixed. Students who love hitting the machines aren't as happy. Ratcliffe concedes that some parents think the TEA didn't go nearly far enough, saying it should have removed the machines entirely.

As for the soda conglomerates, the ones that battle over whether kids are going to spend their money on Coke or Pepsi, Ratcliffe says at first the companies were upset about the change.

"But once they had the policy explained to them and how it wasn't actually a ban, I'm told they were comfortable with it," Ratcliffe says.

Comfortable is the key word in all this. Kids are comfortable with eating a lot of sugar. It tastes good; some fool themselves into thinking it gives them an extra burst of energy during the day. Then, of course, there's the crash.

School districts have gotten very comfortable with the money these vending machines bring in, both from the sales themselves and the "exclusive contract rights" paid out by soda companies.

Soda-pop and snack-food companies are extremely comfortable with the arrangement that's developed over the last several years. Yes, they put out millions of dollars to set up their deals. But that pales in comparison with the money they take in from grooming the cadre of cola-drinking little people who'll grow up someday to be cola-drinking big people.

The Houston Independent School District takes in a little over $3 million a year from its vending machine sales, according to Melinda Garrett, HISD chief financial officer. The money goes to each school's student activity fund. Thanks to its exclusive contract with Coke, HISD also will be taking in $5.2 million over five years, she says. This money goes for such things as renovations at the district's athletic facilities.

Not everything is Coke, of course, even in a Coca-Cola contract. Increasingly, juices, sports drinks and water are dispensed at schools. Charles Dupre, associate superintendent for business and finance in the Fort Bend ISD, which also has a lucrative Coke contract, says his district may actually end up buying more machines. That's because there's an increasing demand among older students for milk in larger cartons.

In Fort Bend, timers will cut off access to the vending machines during meals, Dupre says. "Students are going to have sodas at other times of the day."

The TEA's Ratcliffe offers two reasons why schools and the state would want to continue allowing vending machines. "I think most people would rather have kids eat something rather than nothing at all. And there's probably a financial question here."

Some of the district people talk of the need for students to make their own choices. Rose Haggerty, the manager of health and physical education for HISD, says while the district encourages students to eat right, it's a part of life for students to decide for themselves.

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