Too much of a real thing

This article was originally published in October 2001

See also companion article: School’s vending machines got milk

The Pacific Northwest is a cornucopia of locally grown organic produce, but you won’t see any of this produce in local school meal programs. School districts in the Puget Sound area spend more time conducting bidding wars between beverage corporations that want exclusive school contracts than they do reviewing locally grown food options, including organic, for school children.

In the last 20 years, school enrollment increased 6.8 percent, yet participation in school meals declined 1.2 percent. One factor may be that vending machines and student stores, filled with a few healthy foods but mostly junk food, compete with school meal programs. In the Puget Sound area, schools are receiving thousands of dollars from large corporations for selling foods and drinks that compete head-to-head with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) meals program.

Northwest schools aren’t the only ones offering students more in empty calories than organic produce. Sixty percent of all public and private middle schools and high schools nationwide sell soda, according to the National Soft Drink Association.

Pop, pupils and profits
The Center for Commercial-Free Public Education estimates that over the past three years, 240 school districts in 31 states sold exclusive or “pouring rights” to a single soda company. This means the schools agree to sell only that company’s drink products in exchange for a signing bonus, plus a percentage of the price paid for each drink.

In 1998, the Seattle School Board signed a five-year exclusive contract with Coca-Cola worth a total of $5.8 million. The contract includes initial and annual cash payments totaling $2.2 million, with the rest of the revenue coming from a 55 percent (approximate) commission on carbonated drinks sold on school grounds. Other Coke products such as juices, sports drinks, and water have lower commission rates. Shoreline’s Shorewood High School received $50,000 for signing a similar contract. “By signing the exclusive contract, we got a higher percentage of the purchase price for drink products,” says Larry Stewart, Shorewood’s activity coordinator.

According to the USDA, many of these contracts have provisions increasing the percentage of profits schools receive when sales volume increases, giving schools a substantial incentive for promoting soft- drink consumption.

What is at stake?
Three main issues surround schools selling exclusive contracts to soda companies: nutrition, money and branding.

A 1994 USDA survey shows children and teens guzzling more than 64 gallons of soda a year, an amount that has tripled since 1978. Increased soda consumption is linked to several health related problems: tooth decay, calcium deficiencies and obesity. Over time, the sugar in soda can break down the hard enamel that protects teeth and leach out essential minerals. Phosphorus, another common ingredient in soda, and caffeine deplete calcium from bones. Multiple studies show the percentage of overweight youths ages 6 to 17 in the U.S. has more than doubled in the past 30 years.

In terms of money, competition between soda giants is a never ending cycle. Coke lured Shorewood High School away from Pepsi, while Pepsi enticed the Lake Washington School District to drop Coke. “My take on it is Coke and Pepsi are dueling all the time,” says Stewart. “Coke offered us an incredible amount of money, even if they were going to lose money, just to get Pepsi out of the school.”

School administrators say the money from soda companies allows them to buy things student would otherwise go without. State guidelines require that money from corporations go to the students and not be used for curriculum or administrative uses. Shorewood used Coke’s money to buy day planners for all the students, picnic tables and a basketball court for lunch time use. Seattle’s Rainier Beach High School used money from beverage sales to fund the school’s newspaper.

Dr. Brita Butler-Wall, executive director of a local group called Citizens’ Campaign for Commercial-Free Schools, does not believe schools should take money from corporations. “The real issue is that public schools are funded by the public to educate the children as provided by state law. It is totally inappropriate that its facilities and employees are being used by corporations to increase their own profits on public time and with public dollars.”

Beyond the question of money, is the issue of branding. By displaying their logos prominently in public schools, corporations are hoping to establish brand loyalty and brand recognition. And they are succeeding.

A recent study found that the average American teenager can identify some 1000 corporate logos, but cannot name even ten plants and animals in the area where they live. The proliferation of logos on school scoreboards, wall space, busses and textbooks concerns parent groups and some members of Congress. Groups against commercialism in schools believe advertising to children, who by law must attend school, is “unethical, immoral and exploitative.”

Competitive foods versus school lunches
Competitive foods are defined by the USDA as any food or drink offered at school, other than meals served through USDA school meal programs.

The school meal program reaches nearly 27 million children nationwide, providing the most nutritious meal some children receive each day. Congress appropriated $5.46 billion in 1999 for the school lunch program. The USDA requires schools to meet specific nutritional requirements to receive federal funding. A traditional school lunch in Seattle includes two ounces of protein, three-fourths cup of fruit and vegetables, approximately two servings of grain products and a half pint of milk.

At the same time, high schools use student stores to teach business skills and food vending machine commissions put money in the associated student body coffers. Both offer appealing alternatives to USDA sanctioned meal programs.

School administrators are aware of the mixed message competitive foods give students. In health classes they learn about good nutrition. In the hallways they are surrounded by vending machines stuffed with junk food. “This is something to be sensitive to,” says Dick Anastasi, last year’s administrator of business services for the Lake Washington School District. But, he adds, “Kids can walk into a store in any part of the country and buy these foods and you can’t stop them.”

Dr. Butler-Wall disputes that conclusion by saying, “That is an ethically bankrupt argument that says that if we can’t fight them we will join them. Besides, Seattle middle schools are closed campuses and they have soda in vending machines available to kids.”

Healthy alternatives
School districts across the country are changing the kinds of food they serve children.

Madison, Wisconsin, was among the first school districts to sign an exclusive cola contract in June of 1997. It was also the first to cancel an existing contract. In August 2000, the school board voted to use multiple vendors and to add healthier beverages. Madison’s schools now struggle to keep milk vending machines stocked. (go to School’s vending machings got milk ….

On the West coast, Berkeley’s “Food Systems Project” creates organic gardens for every school in the district. The district purchases the produce from the students and local organic farms for use in school meal programs.

Locally, the staff from Brier Terrace Middle School in Edmonds called on PCC for help in replacing the soda pop in their vending machines. The school connected with Mountain People’s Warehouse and a vending company that provides healthier options.

Call to action
Despite changes around the country, more needs to be done. Vocal parents and concerned citizens around Puget Sound have the power to influence the selection of products sold in public schools. There are several ways to make one’s opinions heard, including lobbying school principals, speaking at school board meetings, writing letters to elected officials and joining Citizens’ Campaign for Commercial-Free Schools. Reform is possible. We, too, could get organic produce into local schools. (See Ask Goldie!)

For more information, call the Citizens’ Campaign for Commercial-Free Schools at 206-523-4922, email or see

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