In an attempt to deflect criticism of its role in school commercialism and rising child-obesity rates, the Coca-Cola Co. unveiled guidelines last week on such school-business partnerships as vending machine contracts.
The “model guidelines"—which are directed at educators, beverage companies, and their bottlers—recommend the installation of vending machine timers so schools can control student use, the sale of fruit juices and other healthier drinks alongside carbonated sodas in school vending machines, and bans on the sale of sodas to elementary pupils during the school day.
The voluntary guidelines also recommend that educators and Coke’s bottlers, which work directly with school districts, structure vending machine contracts so schools get a steady stream of revenue instead of lump-sum payments, evening out fluctuations in budgets. They also call for placing new graphics on school vending machines that promote physical fitness and educational activities.
Coke and Schools
Here are some guidelines the Coca-Cola Co. unveiled Nov. 17 on how educators and beverage companies should work together in school commercial partnerships, such as vending machine contracts:
Coca-Cola officials said they developed the guidelines in consultation with education groups such as the National Association of Secondary School Principals. But while the NASSP reviewed the school marketing guidelines, it does not endorse them, said Michael Carr, a spokesman for the Reston, Va.-based principals’ group.
“We did not issue a public statement agreeing or disagreeing with the guidelines,” he said. “We do think it’s a good place to start.”
Several of the actions recommended in the Coca-Cola guidelines are already in place in many schools, some educators and industry observers point out. Elementary schools in many states, for example, don’t sell sodas to students during the school day, according to the Alexandria, Va.- based National Association of Elementary School Principals.
And Coca-Cola doesn’t display its logo or other company graphics on textbooks, book covers, or curriculum materials, a move recommended in the guidelines. (“Coca-Cola Plays Both Sides of School Marketing Game,” Nov. 5, 2003.)
Kari L. Bjorhus, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola, said the guidelines meet a need, however, because it’s helpful for educators to have them in one document. “The guidelines are not brand- new,” she said. “It’s pulling them together into an overall approach.”
She and other Coke officials also said the guidelines respond to educators’ concerns about balancing promotion of student health with schools’ budget needs. School districts nationwide have curtailed their budgets, and many find it difficult to pay for some sports, band, or other extracurricular activities without revenues generated by school vending machine contracts.
“It’s important that we listen and respond in a responsible manner and do the right thing,” Ms. Bjorhus said. “This is a great step in the direction of being clear on what we stand for, and how we will conduct ourselves in schools.”
‘Coke Is Afraid’
It’s also a good public relations move for a company struggling to remain in the good graces of parents and educators and maintain a presence on school campuses, some industry observers said last week.
In fact, overall customer satisfaction with Coca-Cola and rival PepsiCo Inc. products has dropped recently. Satisfaction fell 2.4 percent for Coca-Cola and 3.5 percent for Pepsi in the third quarter of 2003, according to the American Customer Satisfaction Index, an independent measure of household consumption developed by the University of Michigan Business School.
California, Texas, and Arkansas also recently adopted legislation or state rules restricting the kinds of foods and drinks sold in school vending machines. Similar legislative proposals have been introduced in at least 19 other states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. (“States Target School Vending Machines to Curb Child Obesity,” Oct. 1, 2003.)
Almost 100 percent of high schools, nearly 75 percent of middle schools, and 43 percent of elementary schools have vending machines or snack shops, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based in Atlanta.
Since 1971, the percentage of overweight adolescents in the United States has more than doubled while the percentage of overweight children ages 6 to 11 has almost tripled, according to the National Health Center for Health Statistics. Health experts have pointed to high-calorie school snacks and lunches as contributors to the problem.
Gary Ruskin, a leading critic of commercialism in schools, looks skeptically at Coke’s intentions for the guidelines.
“This is a sign of blood in the water—Coke is afraid,” said Mr. Ruskin, the executive director of Commercial Alert, a nonprofit commercial- watchdog group based in Portland, Ore. “This is just another way for Coke to sound like it’s doing something nice, but it’s not doing anything.
“If [the company] really wanted to stop the rise of obesity and Type 2 diabetes in kids,” he said, “then they would stop marketing to kids.”
‘Good First Step’
California state Sen. Deborah V. Ortiz, a Democrat, said the guidelines were on the right track, but needed more teeth. She sponsored a measure, which then-Gov. Gray Davis signed into law in September, that forbids the sale of sodas in elementary and middle school vending machines in her state.
“I am pleased that Coca-Cola supports removing sodas from elementary school campuses, but that’s not enough,” Sen. Ortiz said in a statement last week. “We have to include middle and high schools as well. Our goal is to prevent obesity in children, not simply delay its onset.”
Susan Combs, the state agriculture commissioner in Texas and an active proponent of improved student health, said the guidelines were a hopeful sign. But she agreed that they fell short.
Ms. Combs, a Republican, made an executive decision earlier this year banning the sale of sodas, candy, and high-fat snacks in state elementary schools during the academic day. Her decision also required middle schools to bar student access to such foods and drinks during mealtimes, and prohibited the sale of sodas exceeding 12 ounces to students.
She criticized the company’s guidelines for not recommending the complete removal of soft drinks from middle schools. She noted that the guidelines also do not say anything about limiting the container sizes of beverages.
Moreover, Ms. Combs said, the guidelines don’t recommend equalizing school commission rates on carbonated beverages with those for milk, juice drinks, and water. Beverage companies often give schools much higher commission rates on sodas compared with healthier drinks, she said.
“I do commend Coca-Cola for recognizing the huge crisis we have with children’s obesity,” Ms. Combs said. “It’s a good first step. But they don’t go far enough.”