Student Well-Being

States Target School Vending Machines toCurb Child Obesity

By Darcia Harris Bowman — October 01, 2003 7 min read
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The battle against childhood obesity used to be one of admonitions: Don’t eat this candy, don’t drink that soda.

Now elected officials are proposing measures to put the nation’s children on a diet. State policymakers appear particularly eager to join the war on fat, and many are choosing vending machine sales in schools as their first target.

In the latest high-profile action, Gov. Gray Davis of California signed a bill Sept. 17 that places restrictions on the kinds of foods and drinks that can be sold in school vending machines. That move was preceded over the summer by Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs’ executive decision to limit schoolchildren’s access to candy and sodas.

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See the accompanying map, “Targeting Candy and Soda.”

And Arkansas enacted a school nutrition law in June that prohibits access to vending machines in elementary schools and requires middle and high schools to restrict those sales to students until after lunch.

Similar legislative proposals to ban or curtail soda and candy sales in schools have been introduced in at least 19 other states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“Everybody was waiting to see what the [California] governor would do with that bill,” said Leslie T. Robbins, a policy specialist for the Denver-based NCSL. “Now that he’s signed it, my prediction in 2004 is that we’ll see even more bills” in state legislatures.

‘Fat Profits’

Ms. Combs was ready to defend her decision to make Texas one of the first states to limit children’s access to “foods of minimum nutritional value” in elementary and middle schools.

The rules completely ban the sale of such foods in elementary schools during the academic day and require middle schools to bar students’ access to soda, candy, and high-fat snacks during meal periods. Also, middle schools are prohibited from selling soda to students in individual servings that exceed 12 ounces.

Schools lose a day of meal reimbursement funds from the state when they’re caught violating the rules, which the agriculture commissioner warned would be aggressively enforced.

Shortly after unveiling the new policy, Ms. Combs, a Republican who was first elected in 1998, released a survey that showed that roughly half the 932 school districts in Texas have exclusive vending contracts with soft drink companies such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi, or Dr Pepper. The agreements are lucrative, generating an estimated $54 million annually for Texas public schools, with the largest districts raking in as much as $2.7 million a year.

“Clearly, it’s time for school districts to re-examine their dependence on these types of contracts and the shortsightedness of choosing fat profits over healthy kids,” the commissioner said at an Aug. 27 press conference.

Pointing to federal statistics that show the percentage of overweight U.S. children has doubled among the younger ages over the past two decades and tripled among adolescents, state officials across the country argue that the problem constitutes a public-health crisis that demands action.

Industry representatives call the legislative efforts to outlaw or limit school soda and snack sales misguided. They argue that legislation to improve health instruction or mandate physical education would be more effective in combating obesity.

Banning certain foods for students “just sets up this forbidden-fruit syndrome,” said Michael C. Burita, the communications director for the Center for Consumer Freedom, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that represents restaurants and food companies.

“The irony,” Mr. Burita said, “is that most of the money from these contracts helps pay for after- school programs and sports, things that arguably do more to prevent obesity than soda bans.”

On the other hand, many public-health advocates and some legislators insist that the sale of soda and junk food in schools is a key contributor to the fattening of American children. Until recently, though, few legislatures have been eager to take up proposals that threaten the income streams of public schools.

But Ms. Robbins of the NCSL and other observers suggest that the tide is now shifting in favor of state-mandated restrictions on such sales.

‘Find Out the Truth’

The Center for Science in the Public Interest stacked these 30 one-pound boxes to show the amount of soda sugar a typical child consumes in a year.

At a Sept. 15 press conference in Washington, the Center for Science in the Public Interest stacked these 30 one-pound boxes to show the amount of soda sugar a typical child consumes in a year.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley/Education Week

The challenge, Ms. Robbins said, will be to turn all those state bills into laws. She said that could be a slow process.

To begin with, legislators who propose bans or limits on soda sales in schools run into stiff opposition from school groups and lobbyists for the soft drink industry.

As a result, Ms. Robbins said, many of the lawmakers have altered their legislation to target sales to younger students in elementary and middle schools.

“It’s easier to target the younger grades, because you can make the argument that they’re young, they don’t know any better, and they need protection,” she said. “I think it’s a compromise legislators are making with soft drink and food companies.”

To get the bill in California passed, the sponsor, Sen. Deborah V. Ortiz, a Democrat, was forced to accept amendments that watered down the proposal by exempting high schools and allowing students to bring soft drinks to school. Even so, the bill passed in the Senate on a straight party-line vote. (“School Soda Sales Lose Fizz With Calif. Lawmakers,” Sept. 10, 2003.)

In Maine, a bill introduced by Rep. Sean Faircloth this year to bar candy and soda sales in public schools failed to win any votes in the House education committee and was held over until the 2004 session.

Instead, the legislature set up a committee to study obesity and related health-care costs and produce a report with policy recommendations by Dec. 1.

Mr. Faircloth, a Democrat, applauded the creation of the committee, but he said he still wanted to see the availability of unhealthy food and drinks to schoolchildren dramatically lowered. His proposal would prohibit the sale of food and beverages with a high sugar or sweetener content, prohibit soft drink sales in elementary and middle schools, and limit sales in high schools to products with no caffeine or sugar.

The legislator rejected the argument that schools will lose money if they choose to serve healthy foods. He cited a list of healthier vending machine options recommended in September by the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest; those items include granola bars, fruit cups, raisins, bottled water, orange juice, and low-fat milk.

“It’s one of those industry misrepresentations that there will be this dramatic revenue loss, but there are other, healthier options out there,” Mr. Faircloth said. “My message to school boards and administrators: Don’t be played for suckers. Do the research and find out the truth.”

A Tough Choice

In Oregon, no action was taken in the last legislative session on Sen. William E. Morrisette’s proposal to require that all food and drinks sold in schools meet the same nutritional standards as those offered in the federal government’s school meals program.

A lobbyist for school boards in the state said the Democratic lawmaker’s bill represents an unwelcome and unwarranted intrusion into local decisionmaking.

“I don’t know of a school district in Oregon that has not already adopted a policy to limit the sale of these products during the school day,” said John C. Marshall, the director of legislative affairs for the Oregon School Boards Association. “The idea that somehow local school officials are blinded to the nutritional needs of students by the promise of revenue is insulting.”

So far, industry officials say state legislative efforts haven’t done much to curb soft drink sales in schools.

Some groups argue that states should spend less time trying to regulate what children eat or drink in school and focus instead on making sure K-12 education is adequately financed.

“We’ll know when we’ve reached funding adequacy because school districts will no longer have to pit Coke and Pepsi in bidding wars for the most lucrative contracts,” Mr. Marshall said.

Ms. Combs agreed.

Although the Texas agriculture commissioner has been tough on schools in public, she sounded a softer tone in a telephone interview last week. She acknowledged that districts are caught in the difficult position of “having to choose between great nutrition [for students] and income.”

Still, she argues that schools can choose to sell healthier drinks and foods.

“The answer is clearly to change the content of the [vending] machines,” Ms. Combs said.

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