Groups Blast Proposed Junk Food Ban in Schools

By Susan Jones | July 7, 2008 | 8:21 PM EDT

( - Educators and soft drink industry representatives see nothing sweet in a proposal to ban soft drinks and candy in vending machines in Illinois schools -- all schools, public, private and parochial.

It's another unfunded mandate that will likely do nothing to solve the problem of obesity, said a press release issued by the National Soft Drink Association.

The soft drink industry is mobilizing opposition to the proposal floated by Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich in December.

"When kids can buy all the soda and all the junk food they want, whenever they want, even in school, the fact that we're seeing more and more health problems among children shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone," said Blagojevich in announcing the proposed ban.

"We need to stop sending mixed messages to our children, by teaching them about nutrition in the classroom, and then selling them soda, and candy, and all kinds of junk food only a few feet away."

Illinois House Bill 3974 would amend the School Code, so that as of Jan. 1, 2005, each school would have to prohibit soft drinks and candy from being dispensed to students from school vending machines.

But a number of education officials and education groups say state lawmakers should let school districts address the issue themselves.

According to the National Soft Drink Association, the education groups opposed to the soft drink ban include the Illinois Principals Association and the Illinois Coaches Association, among others. The objections in many cases boil down to local control -- and money.

"This is just another example of trying to fix a societal problem by laying it at the school house steps," the press release quoted Dave Turner, executive director of the Illinois Principals Association, as saying.

"We are spending a great deal of time, resources and political capital on this issue while, in the meantime, more than 75 percent of our schools are facing budget deficits and local principals are being forced to lay off teachers as they struggle to keep up with the requirements set forth by the No Child Left Behind Act."

Robin Miller, Executive Director of LUDA (Large Unit District Association) said local school districts should decide what food and beverages to offer students.

"The governor, in his state of the state address, said if you believe in your local schools, then you should show it by giving them more control. Why take away the decision making power of schools now on this issue? Especially when individual schools are already looking out for the best interests of their students by determining where vending machines are placed, the hours of operation, the variety of beverages and how the revenue is spent," Miller said.

According to the soft drink industry, more than half of the beverages in school vending machines are non-carbonated, including as water, juice and sports drinks. But critics, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, complain that many of the drinks are full of sugar and calories.

In a Jan. 6, 2004 policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that school districts across the country "restrict the sale of soft drinks to safeguard against health problems that result from overconsumption."

But, argues the soft drink industry, studies show that "demonizing" soft drinks can backfire, because it makes some students want them all the more -- the "forbidden fruit" theory.

"The focus should be on finding meaningful solutions to the problem of childhood obesity," said Susan Kundrat, a sports nutritionist who counsels student athletes at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois.

"It's important that we educate children about how to choose a balanced diet overall, and not simply promote a 'good food, bad food' mentality. Kids need to learn it is okay to consume all foods and beverages in moderation."

Moreover, she added, "We know that many high schools have open campuses for lunch, so students already have access to a variety of beverages at convenience stores and quick-serve restaurants, and they also bring them from home."

At a time when many school budgets are in the red, the revenue that comes in from vending sales is critical to the existence of many school programs, the press release noted.

"Illinois ranks near the bottom of the nation when it comes to per capita funding of education. How can the state ask schools to just give up an important source of revenue with no thought to how that funding will be replaced?" said Jim Rosborg, Superintendent of Belleville School District 118.

"What's ironic is that it will actually force many schools to cut back on sports and other physical activities -- in other words, the very programs that actually help reduce obesity."

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