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Schools junk food { February 27 2001 }

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Schools Hooked on Junk Food
Reliance on Vending Proceeds Decried -- and Defended

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 27, 2001; Page A01

It's lunchtime at Montgomery Blair High School and junior Trevor Obarakpor, 16, is placing his order: a 20-ounce Pepsi, a honey bun and a Twix candy bar.

Sophomore Adrianne Schmidt, 15, lining up at the same row of vending machines, chooses a Dr Pepper, a bag of Cheetos and a pack of peanut M&M's.

The students may be junk food junkies, but the schools are hooked, too, increasingly dependent on the revenue that soda and candy machines bring in each year.

Through contracts with soft drink companies and other vendors, some schools are raising as much as $100,000 a year, money that pays for such things as computer rewiring, teacher training and Black History Month activities.

Read the fine print of those contracts, though, and the costs start to sink in: One school in Prince George's County guaranteed sales of 4,500 cases of soda a year -- or about 50 sodas a student. Some contracts state that schools could lose money if they turn off the machines at lunchtime, as required by state and federal law. Blair's machines were humming during a recent lunch hour, a common occurrence at schools across the region.

The biggest cost, some parents and health advocates say, is the health risk to students in a system that gives schools a financial interest in selling them more snacks. One recent study linked soft drinks to childhood obesity, and others point to tooth decay and caffeine dependence -- findings that the soda industry disputes.

"Things have gotten out of control," said Maryland state Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's), who is sponsoring legislation that would require most soda and snack vending machines to be turned off during the school day. "Kids shouldn't be pawns. They eat a candy bar from a machine, get a brief sugar rush, and then their heads go down on their desks."

The U.S. Agriculture Department delivered a stinging report to Congress last month recommending that all snacks sold in schools meet the federal government's nutritional standards.

"One of the biggest challenges school meal program managers face is the competition with foods that are marketed to children through multimillion-dollar, glitzy and sophisticated advertising campaigns," the report stated.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) last fall commissioned a study that found that the uses and oversight of vending machines varied widely among school districts and even from school to school.

The explosion of vending machines in public schools is a relatively new phenomenon. As recently as a decade ago, such machines were uncommon on campus. But as principals and PTAs began to recognize the potential payoff of vending revenue during a time of increasingly tight school budgets, the number grew quickly.

High schools in the District receive $4,000 to $30,000 a year under a contract negotiated by the central office, while Fairfax schools take in $20,000 to $30,000 a year under a similar setup, officials said. The numbers are higher in Prince George's and Montgomery, where schools are allowed to negotiate contracts.

"This money is crucial," said William H. Ryan, principal at High Point High School in Prince George's, which allows school-by-school contracts. Last year, High Point took in more than $98,000 in vending revenue, about a quarter of the school-based operating budget. "There are things that I do with that money around the school for students that I could not do," Ryan said.

He's not alone. President Bush's new education secretary, Roderick R. Paige, helped land a $5 million contract with Coca-Cola last year when he ran Houston's school system. Increasingly, school districts are signing exclusive deals with one soda company or vendor. Charles County, for instance, signed a 10-year, $1.75 million deal last year to sell only Coke products in its schools.

Some communities, though, have fought against the proliferation of snack machines in schools. In Philadelphia last year, parent activists successfully blocked a proposed 10-year, $43 million deal between the school system and Coca-Cola. Last week, the New York Board of Education settled a 1999 class-action lawsuit brought by parents. An agreement was reached that schools can sell only nutritious snacks during lunch hour.

Locally, though, vending machines have a firm footing in most of the region's school districts.

Montgomery Blair alone has about 30 machines that are scattered around the halls and outdoor pavilions. "I came out of Virginia and I was used to doing it, and folks here weren't," said Blair Principal Phillip Gainous, who has been at the school for 18 years. "I would tell them how to negotiate a contract. I said: 'Here's how I do it. Coke and Pepsi are the two players in town. They both want in. Pit one against the another.' "

In the mid-1990s, Gainous did just that and got Pepsi to bite on what he said was the largest high school vending contract in the nation.

In the 10-year deal, Pepsi agreed to pay Montgomery Blair a one-time $100,000 fee in March 1998, along with a minimum $55,000 annual commission, $1,450 annually in promotional materials for the school, five athletic scoreboards and other athletic supplies.

In exchange, Blair promised to place a minimum of 18 soft drink machines throughout the school and ensure that the student population remained above 2,100. The machines are on all day, despite a federal law prohibiting schools from selling such products during lunch hours and a Maryland law prohibiting schools from turning on vending machines until after the final lunch period.

Small wonder. The contract contains a clause that reads: "[I]f the Board of Education actively enforces the policy in which vending machines are turned off during the school day, the commission guarantee will be suspended."

This is not unusual: High Point's contract with Monumental Vending, which provides snack machines, has the same stipulation. High Point also guarantees that it will sell 4,500 cases a year, and easily sells more than that. Ryan said teachers and parents also use the machines, which are left on at night and on weekends.

Montgomery and Prince George's officials say they are auditing schools to see how much money they raise and whether they are abiding by the rules. Ellen Valentino, a spokesman for the Maryland soft drink association, said companies do not encourage schools to violate laws.

To many parents, the vending machine contracts are a necessary evil.

"Kids will eat chocolate and look for caffeine. It goes with the territory, like the hormones," Blair PTSA President Sallie Sternbach said. "From my perspective, I'd much rather have them be available on campus than put kids at risk finding a way to get off campus and cross eight lanes of traffic to find their manna."

That doesn't sit well with some students, including seniors Claire Sandberg-Bernard, 17, and Benjamin Tabor, 17, who have lobbied Gainous to get rid of the machines.

"The school system is failing our children in promoting unhealthy eating habits," Sandberg-Bernard said. "I am fundamentally opposed to the principles on which our school accepted the deal with Pepsi."

Tabor's father, Mike, is a farmer of fruit and vegetables. The Tabors have spoken about the dangers of non-nutritious eating, but say they are alarmed at the lack of response.

"It's not just that there are vending machines, but they're filled with the worst food there can be: candy and fried pork rinds," Mike Tabor said. "I thought, 'What's going on here? Why not have granola bars?' "

Gainous, though, says that years ago he tried an experiment. He filled one machine with more healthy drinks, such as V-8 juice. Virtually no one bought the product, he said. Although Gainous and others point out that Pepsi offers bottled water and juices in its machines, the juice offerings are made with only 1 percent to 5 percent real fruit juice.

Some principals have tried to restrict what they consider the worst of the junk food. Janice Mills, principal at Laurel High in Prince George's, has banned Pepsi from selling its highest-calorie beverage, Mountain Dew. She also has outlawed candy bars and licorice, though she allows granola snacks, chips and pretzels. Laurel's $42,269 in vending profits last year ranked 11th among the county's 20 high schools.

Fairfax's answer is to let a nutritionist oversee the contracts to ensure that the machines are stocked with foods that meet federal nutrition standards.

"I would never sacrifice nutrition for the bottom line," said Penny McConnell, Fairfax's director of food and nutrition services. "We're a federal nutrition program. Students get enough of this off campus, and they do have it available after school."

For Montgomery Blair senior Katie Riley, such considerations are unimportant. Pressed for time to study for a calculus exam, she stopped by the machines one recent day for a Pepsi and a bag of chips -- skipping the lunch her mother packed: yogurt, cookies and an apple.

"It's fast and it's filling," she said with a smile. Although she sometimes worries that such a meal could make her fat, she shrugged: "Part of you thinks about going more healthy, but most kids just go more for what tastes good."

2001 The Washington Post Company

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