Moving away from sweet stuff

Moving away from sweet stuff

A lot has changed since 1908, when Pepsi's official slogan declared its soda "Delicious and Healthful."

On Wednesday, Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Cadbury Schweppes agreed to limit soda sales in public schools out of concern for the health of the nation's children.

The decision will affect millions of schoolchildren, especially students at the high school level. Most local districts already don't allow elementary and middle school students access to soda machines.

The companies have agreed to sell only water, unsweetened juice and low-fat milks to elementary and middle schools, but in high schools, they will still distribute diet soda, diet and unsweetened tea, sports drinks and flavored water. The agreement will not affect extracurricular activities, meaning the full array of sodas can still be sold in concession stands at athletic contests and other events.

According to the American Beverage Association, sales of diet sodas, sports drinks, teas and flavored water have been increasing, although regular soda is still the biggest seller.

The deal is also fueled by a nationwide push for regulation of soda and junk food in schools. Some states have passed legislation to limit or ban soda as well as junk food from schools. Hawaii bans junk food in all schools all day.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich encouraged similar legislation last year that didn't go anywhere. He then encouraged the Illinois State Board of Education to pursue some regulations in schools. In March, the state board adopted rules banning junk food and soda in Illinois elementary and middle schools. The rules were then blocked in April by the General Assembly's Joint Committee on Legislative Rules, but the state board hopes to pass a revised version soon.

The agreement may mean less money for some school activities, which depend on soda sales for their income. But parents and some school administrators say it won't mean much change in what students drink, and several schools already have moved away from sodas in vending machines. Others have exclusive contracts with soda vendors for machines in their schools.

The effect on area districts:

Urbana

Unlike many nearby school districts, the Urbana district has no contract for pouring rights with any distributor.

Nancy Clinton, principal of Urbana Middle School, said the national agreement won't change much in the vending machines of her school.

"We took the junk machines out of the school, and by junk I mean soda and candy," she said. "The students in this building have access to things like granola ... and then they have access to one machine that sells water and Powerade and fruit drinks."

She said some of the fruit drinks may have sugar in them.

Kathy Wallig, spokeswoman for the Urbana district, also facilitated the school's wellness policy committee, which proposed guidelines including the recommendation of non-sugared drinks like milk, water and 100 percent fruit juice.

The Urbana school board discussed the proposal at a study session Tuesday night. The absence of sugared sodas is "not a problem for us, because we don't have them," Wallig said. "This will have very little impact on us except possibly concession stands."

However, Urbana student opinion toward sugared sodas and drinks may not jibe with the healthy-lifestyle push.

As part of the research for the district's wellness policy, Urbana High School students Mari Mermelstein and Erica Houk conducted a food survey of their school.

When students in all grades were asked whether they chose food by taste or by nutritional value, 134 chose taste, while 36 chose nutrition.

When asked what they wanted in school vending machines, several students requested bringing back soda.

Champaign

The Champaign school district's contract with Coca-Cola expires this summer, and school administrators met recently with representatives of both Coke and Pepsi.

"(Pepsi) was very aggressive in terms of letting the school district know they have a myriad of products that could take the place of soft drink soda," said Gene Logas, the district's chief financial officer. "They had page after page after page of products that we could possibly utilize other than soft drinks," including energy drinks, teas, juices, Gatorade, bottled water and lemonade.

The soda machines at the middle schools and high schools are available only after school, not throughout the school day, said Assistant Superintendent Beth Shepperd.

School board President Margie Skirvin said one of the few actions she regrets as a school board member is voting for the Coke contract.

"Shortsightedly you think, we need that new gym floor, instead of long term, we don't want our kids drinking all that junk," Skirvin said. "This is a really positive development. I'd love to get that stuff out of the school."

The district gets about $40,000 to $45,000 annually from the Coke contract, Logas said. The money goes to the buildings from which the drinks were sold to use as they see fit. That amount doesn't include revenue made by PTAs or booster clubs, which buy drinks directly from Coca-Cola, Logas said.

Skirvin said parents are more concerned about access to soda than the money.

"It's hard to give up the attachment to the money that comes in that goes to activity funds, but (parents) don't talk about that. They just talk about how aggravated they are," Skirvin said. "I can't imagine anybody is going to be sorry to see it go."

Nancy Holm, who has a daughter at Centennial High School and is active in the PTA, said parents had planned to talk with administrators and tell them they didn't want sodas in the schools.

"It's something we really didn't want, getting money by supplying kids with pop," Holm said. "We shouldn't be giving access to kids to drinking pop at school. I think giving them access to water or sports drinks or milk, that's fine."

Holm said some parents also thought the Coke contract was too restrictive in terms of what could be sold at school activities, such as dances.

The school district is concerned about the health effects of drinking soda, Shepperd said, "but when the student is of high school age, the bigger issue is teaching them to make good choices, because ultimately they will make the choices. They can leave school and consume multiple soft drinks and treats filled with transfats."

The district's high schools have an open campus during lunchtime, meaning students can leave the school and get food and drinks elsewhere.

Mahomet

Mahomet-Seymour elementary schools do not have vending for students.

"For kindergartners through fifth-graders, I'd say the impact (of the distribution agreement) will be minimal to none at all," said district Superintendent John Alumbaugh.

The district has a contract for pouring rights with PepsiCo and has a limited amount of sugared sodas in the upper schools. Lately, Alumbaugh said, the schools have been moving away from the sweet stuff.

"We still have pop but not to the extent that it was," he said. "The biggest seller at the high school is water."

Lynn Harpst, a Mahomet-Seymour school board member, approves of the deal and what it means for the district.

"I'd rather see juice and milk and things of that nature," he said. "I think that's better; it's better for the children."

Alumbaugh doesn't foresee any major issues with taking sugared soda-pop out of the schools.

"This just kind of formalizes where everybody has been moving anyway," the superintendent said. "It will put a more definite timeline on it."

St. Joseph-Ogden High School

Superintendent Victor Zimmerman said the district receives less than $3,000 per year from its contract with Coca-Cola. The money is used for student activities and athletics, and a portion goes into the general budget. Coca-Cola made a donation for the school's all-weather track when the district extended its contract a few years ago.

Zimmerman said the high school has six to eight soda machines in the cafeteria, locker rooms and teachers' lounge. They sell Coke, water and sports drinks.

Zimmerman noted the high school has an open campus for lunch.

"If (students) want Coke or Pepsi, they'll just go over to the IGA and get it," he said.

Tolono

Michael Shonk, superintendent of Tolono schools, said he's shocked by the decision and a little worried about what it will do to student activities' funds that benefit from soft drink sales.

"I understand the philosophy behind it," said Shonk, whose district contracts with PepsiCo. "We're all aware of the claims about obesity in youth and we all want to do things to make kids healthier. At the same time, I think we need more time to think it through. Our students benefit from those sales."

Rantoul

Superintendent Bill Trankina said Rantoul City Schools have already made some policy decisions about soft-drink sales, so the new agreement won't have much impact there. But he's also skeptical about whether the ban will have the anticipated effect.

"We sell pop during the lunch hour now, and our plan is that we will not during the upcoming school year," Trankina said. "We based that decision on some of the activities of the governor and the state Legislature. We see the handwriting on the wall. However, I don't believe legislating behavior in this case will have the desired outcome."

"We're a district with daily physical education for all students," he said. "We've made a strong commitment to helping children understand and have effective physical and health education programs to assist them with factors that lead to overweight. We think selling pop is a very small factor. Nevertheless, we'd rather not contribute to individuals' difficulties."

News-Gazette staff writers Tracy Moss, Amy F. Reiter, Jodi Heckel and Anne Cook contributed to this report.

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