Sodas Out, Healthier Students In
By Jacqueline Domac
United Teacher Magazine, August 2002
Goodbye Coca-Cola. Next year Coca-Cola Incorporated will have to find someone else other than Venice High School students to market their soda to. And on August 27th, if the LAUSD School Board passes the Healthy Beverage Resolution, they’ll have to look far beyond our school district.
Two years ago, one of my health students simply asked if we could sell some pure juice in the vending machines on campus. Having twenty-two machines, I was surprised at that fact that it wasn’t already offered. I slipped the request into our financial manager’s mailbox, and received a reply the next day. It read “Sorry, selling this juice would conflict with our soda contract”. Scary, but true.
How could this be? As a health teacher, I promote sound nutrition to close to 200 students a day. Were my students really being denied the right to purchase pure fruit juice from the vending machines? Did Coca-Cola really have more influence over my students’ beverage choice than all of their nutrition instruction? I realized it was time to take a peak at the dark side of the soda industry. And boy, did this teacher learn a lesson.
Venice High School has an exclusive soda contract. All beverages sold in vending machines, other than coffee or milk, must be made by Coca-Cola Inc. In return, the company gives us $3,000 per year up front, and a few hundred cases of free product. Sounds good until you discover that another school in your district scored a $57,000 marquee out of their deal. But then who would know? The contract has a “confidentiality clause” in it, which forbids discussing the contents. And if you request a hard copy of it, you will most likely be denied. And if you give out the information, as I did, you may be summoned to the principal’s office.
There’s no doubt that our schools are strapped for cash. Through years of mismanagement and the declining support of public schools, our education system is in peril. It’s no surprise and it’s nothing new. Our health department has 63 books for nearly 500 students. Tiles hang precariously from ceilings, and you need to walk quite a distance to find a water fountain you would consider using. Three thousand teachers’ boarded buses in June to protest losing health care benefits, while simultaneously being forced to accept a class size increase. Don’t count on LAUSD providing the extra desks. Count on private industry capitalizing on our misfortune.
My disheartened students, however, did not give up without a fight. They wanted their juice. With a petition in hand, they pleaded to contract with an independent vendor, unbeholden to any entity that manufactures soda. The alternative contract also offered a few thousand dollars per year in cash, but the request was still denied. The decision being solely made by the principal and financial manager. Instead a compromise was made. Coca-Cola would introduce pure apple and orange juice into the vending machines, but at $1.25 per bottle, twenty-five cents more than the soda. We ended up absorbing the cost and offering the juice for a buck. We make over twice as much profit from the soda than the juice.
Our story became the subject of many projects. It was seen as a triumph of the common student, a voice of reason, over the force of big business. However, the victory was bittersweet. Each of the vending machines has a minimum of nine slots. Within a few months, the pure juice had dwindled to only 4 slots out of over 200. Students still lodge complaints that although they put their money in for juice, the machine only dispenses soda. Our frustrations fell on deaf ears.
And it was back to business as usual at Venice High School. It turned out that Senator Marta Escutia’s bill, SB19, which would have forbidden the sale of soda and junk food on campus, would only go into effect at elementary schools and partially at junior high schools. It was quite chilling to watch the Chair of the State Assembly Committee on Health, a nurse by profession, make a case for selling soda on campus. Along with lobbyists from the soda and junk food industry, SB19’s impact at the high school level didn’t stand a chance. Although it was defeated, one tidbit of a victory prevailed. Several school districts would be chosen to receive a Linking Education, Activity and Food Grant, and have up to three pilot sites that would implement the tenants of SB19. Last month, LAUSD was one of 8 districts chosen, out of over 43 applicants. As of July 1st, Venice High School, Monroe High School and Edison Middle School have been in the process of removing soda and junk food from their sites. Instead of soda, healthy beverages and snacks will be offered, contracts will be shared for all to read, and competitive profits will be attained.
But why stop here? Banning soda sales during the school day at two high schools isn’t good enough. What about the other 46 high schools in our district? The LEAF Grant was just the first step of many to follow, and the next one will fall on August 27th.
We know that soda is not the sole cause of childhood obesity and early onset diabetes, both of which are on the rise. Washing down a Big Mac and fries with a glass of juice won’t get you a clean bill of health. Nor will drinking a glass of milk, infested with hormones, antibiotics, fat and cholesterol. Lack of physical activity and influences at home also come into play, however, we can’t go to every student’s home and turn off the TV and prepare a well-balanced meal. We can, however, discourage the increase in soda consumption on campus. The LAUSD School Board can pass the Healthy Beverage Resolution.
Perhaps school board members will find some offense in knowing that Munchkin Inc., manufacturer of baby bottles, signed a deal with Pepsi. You see, studies show that if a baby bottle has a soda logo on it, the baby has a 4 times greater chance of being fed soda, rather than milk. Doctors are now seeing eighteen-month-old babies with their entire set of baby teeth rotted out. A recent Harvard School of Public Health study of ninth and tenth grade girls found that those who drank colas were three times more likely to develop bone fractures than those who did not. Among physically active girls, those who drank colas were five times more likely to break bones than those who did not. A recent UCLA survey of 900 students in LAUSD elementary schools found that 40% were obese. Banning soda sales on campus won’t solve the entire problem at hand, but it’s a great place to start. A beverage, such as Coke, which can be used to clean toilets and car batteries, and will dissolve a tooth within 3 days, should be stored under the sink, not in our students’ bodies.
As for the fear of lost revenue? There are many alternative vendors ready to step up to plate and they are offering competitive profits. A vendor we recently interviewed at Venice High School offered us 20% profit on juice, whereas Coke only offered 15%. We are also finding that smaller companies also offer free product and financial incentives. In addition, according to Coca-Cola’s own data, students’ tastes are also moving towards healthier beverages. Our sale of Coke decreased by over 17% last year, whereas our sale of water increased by over 50%, and our sale of orange juice, by over 100%.
As a teacher who cares about students long after the bell has rung at the end of the day, I urge you to join me in supporting this resolution. Tell the board members that our students deserve a healthy learning environment, not one controlled by the mass marketing strategies of soda companies. It should never be the responsibility of students to subsidize their public education by making themselves ill with soda. If there are not enough funds to provide our children with the things they deserve, it is due to financial mismanagement by the school board and state officials. Economics should never take precedent over health. Competitive, healthy vending companies are waiting at the door. Let’s let them in.
Chair – Health Department
Venice High School