The Big Deal

The Big Deal

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.

Haggerty places a considerable part of the obesity blame on the lack of physical activity. "When we were growing up, we were always outside. A lot of the children now are going home, sitting in front of the television set."

In fact, a lot of educators prefer to focus on exercise as the culprit, which is certainly reasonable and less troubling than something that carries with it millions of dollars in conflict of interest.

Tom Monahan, principal of Lanier Middle School, says more parents need to get their kids out running around the block. He's not sure there's any correlation between obesity and the number of school vending machines.

Monahan, who runs ten to 15 miles a day, six days a week, issues a challenge each year to students and teachers to beat him in a one-mile race. Teachers don't have to go it alone, they can put a relay team up against him. "So far I'm batting 100 percent," he says.

Vending machines generate "a heck of a lot of money," he says. "It all goes back to the kids, which is kind of nice."

James McSwain, principal of Lamar High, says students should be able to make choices, particularly at the high school level, and that "bottled water and sports drinks are the most popular things kids buy" at Lamar. They not only keep kids hydrated, but if an adult working out at the track becomes overheated, the bottled water becomes a safety issue, McSwain says.

"High school kids are going to do what they're going to do. At some point in our lives we do have the ability to make personal choices. I don't think that you can point to a smoking gun and say obesity is the fault of the vending machines at school," the principal says. Kids don't just take in their calories at school; they make trips to the home refrigerator, and most families eat out more, he adds.

Besides, the educators agree, remove junk food machines entirely, and kids will just go off campus at lunchtime.

In January, the Oakland School District tossed out all the vending machines. Attorney Dan Siegel, then president of the school board that voted to take the step, says the 55,000-student district now operates with a "ban on the sale of soda and other high-sugar soft drinks, period.

"We think our children's health is more important than taking money from the manufacturer and distributor of products that impair people's safety and well-being."

Actually, it was a proposal for one of these exclusive contracts that prompted Oakland's change in policy, Siegel says. The Oakland district could have made up to $250,000 a year, but never adopted a contract.

The California district did have soda sales in most of its 100 schools, but there was no centralized system for stocking the machines or keeping tabs on the profit, Siegel says. As long as the machines were out there, board members thought the district should look at whether there was a profit to be made. The board put him at the head of the task force, which reported that instead of looking for a profit, "we should be looking at this whole issue of whether we should be selling sodas."

Siegel says the group even discovered that in some schools, students didn't need to go to the vending machines, because they could buy soda in the cafeteria line "from us."

The task force, which included parents and kids, adopted a policy that incorporates nutrition education, promotes salad bars and would have included a provision to restrict the sales of sodas to after-school hours and athletic events.

"It wasn't a complete ban. It was just during the school day," Siegel says, explaining that his task force didn't think anything more radical would pass. "But a couple of board members amended it to include a complete ban."

Since the change, "the world has not come to an end," Siegel says. "Our student clubs which used to sell soda and candy are finding other things to sell."

There's a certain pragmatic truth to the Texas policy now being adopted for vending machines. The machines do bring in money -- lots of money, which goes to fund a lot of good things.

None of the Texas educators interviewed wants bad things for the kids. The principals are right that if you close off a campus to junk food, some kids are going to leave school and find their fix at a nearby convenience store.

And as Texas and other states are belatedly discovering, the move a few years ago to set aside phys-ed classes in favor of expanded academics has exacted its toll on the health of youngsters.

But there is something very hypocritical in schools peddling junk food and sodas. And don't think the kids don't see it.

Students are taught in health classes that there are some bad choices to be made in food-land. Yet the school brings these same bad choices onto campus and promotes them, by allowing advertising on the machines they pass by each day. Drink more Coke, and your school gets more money. Even nutritionists say only a little of something won't hurt someone; yet at the same time, school leaders know some kids drink three or four sodas a day.

If junk food and soda machines really aren't so bad, then why don't districts allow them in elementary schools? And why does every educator asked about junk food in schools go out of his or her way to point out there's none of this trash at the elementary level?

You really can't have it both ways. If educators are doing a good thing by not letting the youngest kids have this stuff, how are they doing a good thing by letting kids age 11 on up have it once they hit middle school?

"I'm convinced that selling sodas to kids at lunch is just about as bad as selling them beer, cigarettes or marijuana, and we wouldn't think of doing that," Oakland's Siegel says. As he sees it, junk food and sodas lead to "obesity, hyperactivity, which impairs learning, tooth decay and a whole set of illnesses caused by excessive consumption."

Maybe we need less of our Texas pragmatism and a little more idealism and concern that perhaps having junk food and soda pop isn't the right thing to do. No matter how much we're paid to soothe our consciences.


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