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Health Advocates Target Soda in Schools Amid Reports of Increasing Child Obesity - 2002-09-18

As childhood obesity becomes a growing concern for US health care professionals, Los Angeles schools are joining the fight against flab. Last month, the Board of Education for the nation's second-largest school district voted to stop selling soft drinks to students. The ban won't begin until January 2004 but debate over the decision is already bubbling.

It's lunchtime at James Monroe High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Pepperoni pizza is clearly the most popular choice on this particular day, but starting in 2004, the students here will have to wash lunch down with something other than soda. Health advocates are elated, but for most of the members of Monroe's student leadership class, the new health edict smacks of paternalism.

Students are voicing their opinions on the change:

"I don't think it's right for them to make choices for us because I think we should make choices for ourselves."

"I don't think soda should be the issue but exercise instead, because a lot of people don't get as much exercise as they should."

"Why concentrate on soda? Concentrate on the food the cafeteria provides and plus, people will sneak in soda. It doesn't matter if you ban it or not."

The state of California recently passed a law barring soda sales at its elementary schools beginning in 2004. But that left out older students, an oversight the board of supervisors here in Los Angeles was not willing to let pass by. Not when a study found nearly half the students in the district's poorest schools are overweight. Health experts like Jacqueline Domac, a health teacher at Venice High School, say those kids are at greater risk for problems like asthma, cardiovascular disease, and Type-2 diabetes.

"It's their freedom if they want to bring soda from home. That's the beauty of it. Go right ahead, but you know what we're getting out of the business of promoting it on a public school campus."

Soda machines at the district's schools provide a variety of drinks, but the variety is limited largely to sugary, carbonated choices. Orange soda, for instance, is not the same thing as orange juice. Standing before one bank of Coke machines, Ms. Domac argues it's high time soda gave way to juice, and milk, water and sports drinks.

"Look at these four machines. There's really not much choice if you want a nutritional beverage and they usually sell out first. And I'd also like you to take note that the healthy stuff is always at the bottom. Always, always," Ms. Domac said. But banning sodas is more than a health issue for schools. The move will have a financial impact, too. The profits from drinks sold in vending machines and student stores help fund all sorts of student activities, from music programs to sports.

Back at James Monroe High School, Principal Greg Mallone says Coca-Cola paid $50,000 for the right to place its machines in the school for 3 years. He says Monroe also gets a percentage of the beverage sales. Classic Coke alone, he notes, is worth $25,000 a year to his budget. Just the same, Mr. Mallone supports the soda ban, and trusts there will be a way to make up some of the lost money in greater sales of nutritional beverages and water.

"What we're doing with Coke is we're saying, look, we don't want to get rid of you. That's not our purpose. Our purpose is to give healthy choices to our students, so if you can come up with some healthy choices, we're with you," Mr. Mallone said.

The Coca-Cola and Pepsi companies, the nation's number one and two beverage giants, control most of the soft drink contracts within the district. The deals ensure early and exclusive access to kids while they're developing life-long brand preferences, and beverage companies are reluctant to lose such an important market. Pepsi officials would not comment on the new policy. But Bob Phillips, a spokesman for the local Coca-Cola bottler, said his company intends to stay put in L.A. schools, serving approved drinks.

"What goes on in the schools should be under the control of local school officials, and we're going to work with all of the schools with whom we have relationships in the city of Los Angeles to assure that we're providing that wide variety and providing that selection that they think is best for their student bodies," Mr. Phillips said.

Fifteen-year-old Jennifer Tishman helped bring about the soda ban. Standing outside the hall where the board made the decision, the 10th grader from Venice High School vowed to fight for more changes.

"Next on our list is the junk food in the whole Los Angeles United school district. We're starting with the soda, we're moving on with junk food and probably then [getting more] physical education would be our next step," she said.

Jennifer says kids will drink what's put in front of them rather than go to the trouble of bringing in sodas from home. She'll have a chance to put her thesis to the test, starting in 2004.