The nation’s leading soft-drink producers have come up with voluntary guidelines that would restrict the sale of sodas in schools, but critics say the move will have almost no impact where the problem is worst—in high schools.
The board of the American Beverage Association, whose members collectively sell 85 percent of the soft drinks in the school vending market, approved the policy Aug. 16. Under the guidelines, producers would provide elementary schools with only water and 100 percent juice, and middle schools with nutritious and low-calorie drinks, including water, sports drinks, and fruit juices as well as diet soft drinks. In high schools, no more than 50 percent of vending machine selections could be regular or diet sodas.
“We believe this policy is a sensible approach that addresses the issues unique to the school environment,” Susan K. Neely, the trade group’s president, said in announcing the guidelines Aug. 17 in Seattle at the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures. The association includes major producers such as the Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc., as well as fruit-juice manufacturers such as Tropicana Products Inc. and many smaller beverage makers.
Margo Wootan, the director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based advocacy group, said that while the guidelines are “a good step for elementary schools and a reasonable step for middle schools,” they fall short for high schools.
A study by Ms. Wootan’s group two years ago found that diet and regular sodas accounted for about 45 percent of the offerings in high school vending machines, with water, fruit juices, and sports drinks making up the rest. The beverage association’s guidelines would simply maintain the status quo, she said.
“High schools are where the vending problem is the worst,” Ms. Wootan said.
David K. Lohrrman, the president of the American School Health Association, based in Kent, Ohio, said the beverage trade group could have further scaled down the proportion of sodas offered in high school vending machines to 25 percent.
Ms. Wootan added that as more states pass laws regulating the sales of such beverages, the industry is responding to the “writing on the wall.”
Amy Winterfeld, a health-program analyst at the Denver-based NCSL, said 38 states have considered bills on school nutrition over the past three years, with 15 passing measures that require an improvement in the nutritional quality of foods served in schools or restrict the sale of sodas and junk food in vending machines.
A bill in Congress would require the U.S. Department of Agriculture to come up with rules on the nutritional quality of foods sold through vending machines, a la carte lines, fundraisers, and other school venues. While the USDA now sets detailed standards for school meals, it has little authority over foods sold through vending machines and other sources.
“There is just a growing awareness that the number of obese children [in the country] has increased,” Ms. Winterfeld said.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that among American 6- to 19-year-olds, 16 percent, or more than 9 million, are overweight.
Some school systems have moved on their own to restrict the availability of sodas to students. In the 140,000-student Montgomery County, Md., school district, high schoolers have not had access to such beverages during the entire school day since the 2003-04 academic year, said Kathleen C. Lazor, the district’s nutrition director.
She said the school system was trying to educate children about making wise choices in nutrition.
“We wanted to make sure that as they are walking through the halls, they can make healthy choices as well,” she said.