Stricter School Soda Limits Offered
Facing lawsuit threat, beverage industry vows to curb high-calorie drinks.
The soft-drink industry vowed last week to voluntarily curb selling sugary sodas and other high-calorie beverages in schools, a move that was taken under threat of litigation by critics who see the industry as a prime culprit in a national obesity crisis.
The promise offered no guarantee that schools would go along with the restrictions, though many districts have taken such steps in recent years.
Under the agreement reached by beverage distributors, the American Heart Association, and former President Bill Clinton’s foundation, no full-sugar beverages would be sold in schools. Other beverages would be sold in serving sizes of no more than 120 calories. And in high schools, carbonated diet sodas would be available only along with alternatives, such as bottled water, sports drinks, and juices with no added sweeteners.
The move is designed to address the national epidemic of childhood obesity, Mr. Clinton said in announcing the agreement on May 3.
“There is a lot of work to be done to turn this problem around, but this is a big step in the right direction, and it will help improve the diet of millions of students across the country,” he said at a news conference in New York City.
The agreement would still require action from local school district officials before it could be fully implemented by an industry-set deadline of the 2009-10 school year. However, industry leaders Cadbury Schweppes Americas Beverages, Coca-Cola Co., and PepsiCo Inc. will encourage their local bottlers to renegotiate current contracts with schools to provide a healthier array of choices, said Jennifer Phillips, a spokeswoman with the American Beverage Association, the industry’s trade group in Washington. The ABA represents 20 companies that account for about 85 percent of school vending beverage sales.
The industry group said the agreement was the result of several months of talks between beverage-company executives and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which is a joint initiative of the William J. Clinton Foundation based in New York and Little Rock, Ark. and the American Heart Association in Dallas.
An agreement last week between the beverage industry and health advocates sets voluntary restrictions for the sale of soft drinks and juices in schools.
Elementary schools: Only water, 8-ounce servings of “nutrient rich” juices, such as orange juice, with no added sweeteners, and nonfat and low-fat regular and flavored milks will be sold.
Middle schools: The elementary school standard will apply, with portion sizes increased to 10 ounces.
High schools: At least half the available beverages in high schools will be water, no-calorie, or low calorie selections. There is no serving-size limitation on those beverages. Servings of up to 12 ounces of milk, “nutrient rich” juice, light juices and sports drinks will also be available.
“The new guidelines will continue our industry’s work to provide more lower-calorie and nutritious or functional beverages for students,” Susan K. Neely, the beverage association’s president and chief executive officer, said when the policy was announced. In August of last year, the industry announced a less restrictive set of voluntary guidelines: Elementary schools would be provided only water and 100 percent juices, middle schools would serve full-calorie soft drinks and juices only after school, and no more than 50 percent of the beverage selections at the high school level could be soft drinks.
The new agreement introduces further restrictions, such as limiting serving sizes of some higher-calorie drinks and eliminating all full-sugar soft drinks from high schools. It covers vending machines as well as soda fountains, cafeterias, and school stores. The beverage policy would not apply to afterschool events such as concerts or football games.
“This is the first step to try and solve a difficult and complex problem,” Dr. Rose Marie Robertson, the chief science officer for the American Heart Association, said in an interview. “It really takes the investment of everybody. But we think this is a terrific first step.”
According to the heart association, the prevalence of obese children and teenagers has increased from less than 5 percent in 1980 to 16 percent in 2005.
Many states and districts had already taken steps of their own to limit the sale of carbonated beverages and other high-calorie drinks. Connecticut is poised to become the latest state to curtail school sales of sodas. ("Connecticut Moving to Curb Soda Sales in Schools," this issue.)
Ruth Jonen, the director of food service for 13,000-student Township High School District No. 211 in Palatine, Ill., said her district has not sold carbonated drinks during the school day for the 26 years she has worked there. She applauded the industry’s voluntary policy.
“If we are going to have rules about what we are able to serve in the traditional school meals, then we must in good conscience apply the same standard throughout the same school, throughout the school day,” said Ms. Jonen, who is also the president of the School Nutrition Association, whose headquarters is in Alexandria, Va.
Brett Greenwood, the manager of food service for the 10,000-student Bellingham, Wash., district, said his schools eliminated sales of carbonated beverages in September 2005.
“We did have a little bit of a pushback from the secondary school students,” Mr. Greenwood said. Students were not saying they wanted the drinks, he said, as much as they were saying they wanted the choice of whether to buy them.
The newly announced agreement, while not affecting Bellingham schools directly, “does help our cause,” he said.
“It doesn’t send us out here in left field by ourselves,” Mr. Greenwood said. “It shows the students that the entire industry is behind this.”
Litigation Was Planned
The beverage industry’s move came as several organizations said they were preparing lawsuits against soda companies over the obesity issue. In response to last week’s announcement, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group based in Washington, said it was dropping its planned litigation.
“The industry sees the handwriting on the wall,” said Margo G. Wootan, the director of nutrition policy for the group. “This announcement was about as voluntary as a shotgun wedding.”
She would like to see even more restrictions on school food sales, particularly snack foods and candy.
John Sicher, the editor and publisher of the trade journal Beverage Digest, said he believes the industry made the move “to get ahead of the curve, and to take a proactive stance.”
Sales in schools account for about 1 percent of U.S. sales volume for beverage companies, Mr. Sicher said, so the restrictions are not expected to affect the industry’s bottom line.
And, as savvy teenagers see the appeal of more nutritious drinks, “over a period of time this will help increase beverage sales in schools,” Mr. Sicher predicted.
Dave DeCecco, a spokesman for PepsiCo, based in Purchase, N.Y., also said the move was not expected to hurt beverage sales. The company also markets Aquafina water, as well as Lipton teas, Gatorade, and Tropicana juices.
If beverage makers and schools, which share in the revenues from school sales, think that the numbers will stay the same without the sugary drinks, they may want to talk to those who have already restricted them.
Mr. Greenwood of the Bellingham, Wash., district, projects that his schools will earn $200,000 less in revenue this year since adopting the healthier beverage sales policy last fall.
“We expected to lose some revenue,” he said.
José L. Rodriguez, the principal of the 4,400-student San Fernando High School in Los Angeles, stopped selling candy and soft drinks in his school about two years ago as part of a districtwide policy. Since then, there’s been an 80 percent drop in revenue from vending machine and school store sales.
“We’re talking about thousands of dollars,” he said.
Student health is a good cause, so he’s not complaining, Mr. Rodriguez said. And his students, after a period of complaints, “have pretty much accepted reality,” he said.
Still, he pointed out, the money earned from beverage and snack sales at the school store and in vending machines was used to help pay for student activities.
“We have to look for other ways of raising funds,” he said.
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