L.A. Schools Set to Can Soda Sales
By CARA MIA DiMASSA and ERIKA HAYASAKI
Dr Pepper is about to get expelled from public schools in Los Angeles. So, too, are Coke, Pepsi and Mr. PiBB.
In an effort to promote better health, the Los Angeles school district's board is expected Tuesday to ban soft drink sales during school hours at all of its 677 schools.
Educators and legislators have been grappling for years with how to curb junk food consumption on campuses. So far, only a handful of districts, including the Oakland Unified School District, have restricted soft drink sales.
"It's going to set a national trend," said Francesca de la Rosa of the Center for Food and Justice at Occidental College's Urban and Environmental Policy Institute. The Los Angeles Unified School District, with 748,000 students, is the nation's second-largest. "People will say, if you can do it at LAUSD, you can do it anywhere."
But some principals and students at more than 200 middle and high schools worry about replacing thousands of dollars they receive each year from soft drink sales. That money helps fund field trips, school dances and athletic programs.
Alex Contreras, assistant principal of Los Angeles High School, said his school stands to lose money for sports referees, dance supervisors, student store managers and field trips. In the past, Coca-Cola has offered the school $50,000 upfront for a three-year exclusive contract, on top of the nearly $5,000 a month the campus earns from soft drink sales.
"You can only sell so many candy bars and have so many magazine drives," Contreras said. "Honestly, some of those programs will be hurt very badly, and I don't know what alternative we will have."
Kenneth Raymond, a 17-year-old senior at Dorsey High School, said the ban would "be a real shocker" to students who depend on the money to help pay for a number of activities.
"When it is time for us to have dances and we don't have enough money, we rely on money from vending machines," Raymond said. "Even at pep rallies, we need to pay for our deejays. The school isn't going to pay for that."
School Board President Caprice Young said the district would phase in the initiative slowly, in part to find alternative sources of money. "We need to make sure the kids are drinking things that are not unhealthy for them, and at the same time balancing the need to have revenue for our clubs and sports," she said. "I think we'll be able to do that."
Genethia Hudley-Hayes, one of the three co-sponsors of the motion before the school board, said the district should not be contributing to the unhealthy lifestyles of children, particularly blacks and Latinos.
Such children, she said, "suffer greater childhood obesity, juvenile diabetes, asthma....Why do we let them get off of the bus and have them rush immediately to drink a sugar-caffeinated drink, and then say, 'OK, please now go participate in rigorous academic training' ?"
Hayes said she believes schools can make up money lost by selling more healthful drinks.
"People purchase what is available," she said.
If the motion passes as expected, all schools will be prohibited from selling carbonated drinks during school hours starting in January 2004. Water, milk, drinks composed of at least 50% fruit juice and sports drinks with less than 42 grams of sugar per 20-ounce serving would still be allowed.
A similar ban on sodas in elementary schools was signed into law last October by Gov. Gray Davis, as part of legislation limiting the sale of junk food and soda in public elementary schools. It will also go into effect in January 2004. In May, a proposal to phase out sale of sodas in all California public schools failed to clear the state Senate's Education Committee.
Similar unsuccessful legislation has been introduced in Maryland, Oklahoma and Kentucky. Texas is the only state that bans the sale of all junk food, including soft drinks, during lunchtime on its public school campuses.
The motion before the Los Angeles board is co-sponsored by Hayes, Marlene Canter and Julie Korenstein. It was inspired in part by research showing that nearly half the students in the district's poorest schools were obese or at least overweight.
A United States Department of Agriculture study conducted in the mid-1990s showed that children ages 12 to 17 receive 11% of their calories from soft drinks. A report published last year by doctors at Children's Hospital in Boston showed that children who consume one extra sugar-sweetened drink a day have a 60% greater chance of becoming obese.
"It's liquid candy, and it's screwing up our metabolism," said Andrea Giancoli, a registered dietitian with Los Angeles Project LEAN/Food on the Run, a state program that advocates healthier school food and beverages.
Sean McBride, spokesman for the National Soft Drink Assn., said the board members' efforts to prevent childhood obesity are misguided.
"We are being singled out for a very complex problem," he said.
The district should provide more nutrition education instead of targeting soda sales, he said. "The one thing you simply cannot ignore in this is the role of a sedentary lifestyle," he said. "This is about the couch, not about the can."
According to a 2000 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, half of U.S. school districts have contracts that give a company the exclusive right to sell soft drinks on campuses.
The 55,000-student Oakland Unified School District banned the sale of soda and junk food during school hours last year, said Supt. Dennis Chaconas. District schools earned nearly $500,000 from soft drink sales each year. Chaconas said officials have not determined how much money campuses have lost from the ban. He added, however, that junior prom ticket prices went up this year because students could no longer sell candy to help fund the event.
L.A. Unified's Venice High School, which is part of a state program to help develop school nutrition policies, is set to remove all soft drinks from its vending machines by the time school opens Sept. 3.
"It's never been the responsibility of our students to subsidize their public education with their pocket change," said Jacqueline Domac, a health teacher there. Since the school introduced water and juice into its vending machines two years ago, she said, items such as water and pure orange juice have proved highly popular and Coca-Cola sales have decreased 17%. Domac said she has been working to find vendors who offer more commission per bottle sold than Coca-Cola does.
Both PepsiCo Inc. and the Coca-Cola Co., which control the majority of the soft drink contracts within the district, also sell noncarbonated drinks that would still be allowed. Pepsi, for example, also offers Aquafina water, Dole juices and Gatorade; Coke offers Dasani water, Minute Maid juices and Powerade.
Bob Phillips, a spokesman for Coca-Cola, would only say that his company is continuing discussions with individual schools. Pepsi officials could not be reached.
In addition to the three co-sponsors of the motion, Young and board member David Tokofsky say they support the ban. Board member Jose Huizar could not be reached for comment Saturday.
The seventh board member, Mike Lansing, said he does not support the motion because it does not go far enough. "Why just sodas?" he asked. "Why not cheese chips? Why not candy or any fatty foods we are selling in our cafeterias? We don't even prioritize physical fitness, yet we're going to eliminate obesity by stopping soda sales?"
For Veronica Reyes, 13, an eighth-grader at John Muir Middle School in South-Central Los Angeles, being denied her joy of Pepsi is almost unthinkable.
"I'm not used to water that much, even though my mom tries to make me drink it," she said. "It's unfair because when we get thirsty we need something to drink, and we don't want water. We want something that has sugar."