Beverage Companies Make Sweet Deals With Schools

From the WebMD Archives

Oct. 19, 2000 (Washington) -- Vending machines filled with soft drinks are actually being welcomed into some American schools, but not without a food fight.

"The school districts' going into partnership with the soft drink companies makes no sense," Kelly Brownell, PhD, a professor of psychology, epidemiology, and public health at Yale University, tells WebMD. Brownell is studying such a relationship in Colorado Springs, Colo. Even though many public health officials are outraged by the trend, it's often less a matter of good nutrition than economic reality.

"There are not enough educational dollars to go around to give parents and communities the kind of well-rounded education that they want for their children," Sean McBride, spokesman for the National Soft Drink Association tells WebMD. McBride says there are probably some 200 schools out of 12,000 in the U.S. where educators have entered into these exclusive deals with bottlers.

In return for granting a soft drink monopoly, the school district can reap millions of dollars back in bonuses to support projects like buying computers or band uniforms. "They are a win for the beverage companies, and they are a win for the schools, the students, and the taxpayers," says McBride.

However, Margo Wootan, PhD, director of nutrition policy at the watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest thinks these contracts are a bad bargain. "School officials should not solve their funding problems at the expense of our children's health," Wootan tells WebMD.

She points out that soft drinks contain fattening sugar calories that displace other more wholesome items from the diet, like milk. "The soft drink industry saying that sodas don't contribute to obesity has about as much [credibility as] Philip Morris saying that tobacco doesn't cause cancer," says Wootan.

"Those kind of comments are outrageous, and they're entirely out of bounds," says McBride.

The National Soft Drink Association counters by pointing out that two new studies, one from the Georgetown University Center for Food and Nutrition Policy, and the other from Michigan State University, show that soft drinks have no effect on obesity in children and that kids' milk consumption hasn't declined in the last decade.

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However, McBride says his trade group helped pay for the Michigan State research, and one of the scientists doing the Georgetown study has a faculty position funded by the sugar association.

Meanwhile, Howell Wechsler, EdD, MPH, the CDC's chief scientist for the division of adolescent and school health, worries about what he says is a doubling in the proportion of overweight youth in the last 20 years. He also says adolescents get about 11% of their calories from soft drinks and that lucrative school vending machine deals are a factor.

"We think it's wrong. The National Association of State Boards of Education ... clearly states that it's wrong. All the leading nutrition organization organizations believe that it's wrong. Many, many parents when they're sensitized to the issue think it's wrong," says Wechsler.

"It's not good nutrition for kids," continues Wechsler who points out that some studies have linked sugar to tooth decay.

In fact, some cities like Philadelphia, Sacramento, Calif., and Madison, Wisc., are now rejecting these "pouring rights" deals with bottlers. One industry source says that soft drink companies aren't all that thrilled with the school marketing deals, but they do them anyway in an effort to get a bigger share of the competitive beverage market.

In some communities, the school vending machines contain bottled water and juice in addition to soft drinks. "The decisions about soft drinks or beverages in schools are best left to local educators," says McBride.

There are, though, some interesting local experiments going on to encourage healthy food choices. One project undertaken by scientists at the University of Minnesota makes higher-nutrition options such as baby carrots and pretzels more attractive to kids by cutting the prices in half. According to Wechsler, sales have skyrocketed.

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