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Proposal Urging Schools To Ban Junk Food Stirs Attacks

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Washington

An influential senator's proposal to encourage schools to prohibit the sale of soft drinks and other snack foods in school buildings is running head-on into stiff opposition from school administrators and the soft-drink industry.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, introduced the provision as part of his proposed legislation for reauthorizing the Child Nutrition Act and the federal school-lunch and -breakfast programs.

It would not mandate any changes and would still allow local authorities to set their own policies on snack-food sales.

Nevertheless, the proposal aims to discourage a relationship between schools and companies that can reap thousands of dollars for financially strapped schools.

Mr. Leahy's amendment would urge schools to "establish rules and policies that are more stringent than the minimum [federal] requirements'' relating to such sales and would direct the Agriculture Department to recommend model language that schools could use to ban junk food.

Current federal law allows schools that participate in the federal school-lunch program to sell "competitive foods'' anywhere in the school at any time except lunch periods. Most secondary schools offer such edibles in vending machines throughout the day.

The Coca-Cola Company, for one, hopes to keep it that way.

Backed by the National Soft Drink Association and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the corporation has lobbied heavily against the Leahy proposal.

In a letter sent to schools across the country, Bonnie J. Pruett, an assistant vice president of Coca-Cola, urged educators to write to Congress and request that Senator Leahy "not pursue this act,'' which would "reduce the much-needed revenues to schools that are generated from the sale of soft drinks.''

'Survival Technique'

While vended food and drink are generally off-limits to elementary school students, almost all secondary schools house vending machines, according to Richard A. Kruse, the director of government relations for the N.A.S.S.P.

A recent survey by the group found that 86 percent of secondary schools feature the food dispensers and that a school's profits from such sales can range from $900 to $40,000 a year.

The suburban L.D. Bell High School near Dallas and Fort Worth, for example, provides 12 vending machines for its 1,800 students and earns more than $15,000 a year.

Proceeds support such activities as the mathematics, physics, and computer-programming teams; academic-excellence awards; extended-day programs; and teacher professional development. Without the vending-machine sales, said Principal E. Don Brown, these programs would likely be cut.

"I'd much rather these things be funded by the school district,'' Mr. Brown said. "[Vending machines] are a survival technique.''

Vending-machine sales at Montgomery Blair High School in Montgomery County, Md., have enabled departments to buy computers, textbooks, and other supplies "that they normally wouldn't have been able to fund,'' said Frank Ifkovits, the school's business manager. He said the school's yearly profits from about 20 machines exceed $20,000.

Bottlers typically oversee the management of soft-drink machines and return a monthly cut of the gross sales to schools. Schools can earn as much as 23 cents on a 50-cent soda, Principal James R. Elliott of Thompson High School in Alabaster, Ala., said last week at a hearing on the issue.

Nutrition First

Supporters of Senator Leahy's measure, which include the Clinton Administration, the American School Food Service Association, the National PTA, and a host of other education groups, insist that such profits should not come at the expense of student health.

"Our job is to protect children,'' Senator Leahy said. "There are other sources of revenue for after-school activities.''

Food-service officials cannot foster healthful eating habits when junk food is "right down the hall,'' said Marilyn Hurt, the legislative chairwoman for the A.S.F.S.A. "It's easy for [students] to pick up, and it's the 'in' thing to consume.''

Other backers argue that thebill is nothing more than a clarification of existing law.

"This has become more of a controversy than we would have ever guessed,'' Carolyn Henrich, a lobbyist for the National PTA, said.

But opponents fear that the Leahy proposal could be the proverbial camel's nose under the tent.

"Revisiting the issue of minimal-nutritional foods starts the ball rolling on efforts to ban vending machines in schools,'' Mr. Kruse of the N.A.S.S.P. contended.

"We don't think the federal government needs to adopt a policy to discourage consumption of our products with absolutely no evidence that such a policy is needed,'' said Drew Davis, the vice president of federal affairs for the National Soft Drink Association.

He pointed to several states and school districts that have voluntarily exceeded federal guidelines concerning the sale of snack food.

West Virginia, for example, restricts the sale of soft drinks, candy, chewing gum, and flavored ice bars at school. Next year the state plans to prohibit any items with more than eight grams of fat per one-ounce serving, officials there said.

Profit Motive Downplayed

Mr. Davis also denied that the soft-drink industry is motivated purely by profit. "We are a $47-billion-a-year industry,'' he said. "If we never sold another soft drink in a school again, we'd still be a $47-billion-a-year industry.''

"Our guys deal at a loss with school systems,'' he maintained, estimating that the average bottler donates $115,000 worth of materials to schools yearly.

Mr. Kruse charged that school food-service officials supporting the Leahy proposal are themselves concerned about money.

"They want that money going into the cash register in the school-lunch lines,'' he said.

Mr. Davis, meanwhile, told the Senate panel that "there is no evidence to suggest that soft drinks are inconsistent with sound nutrition science.''

That statement, Senator Leahy retorted, "sounds like it was written by the same person who tried to convince us a few years ago that ketchup was a vegetable.''

Mr. Leahy's committee is expected to mark up its reauthorization bill early next month.

The House Education and Labor Committee last week finished consideration of a companion bill, which does not include language analogous to Mr. Leahy's proposal.

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