By Greg Winter
The New York Times
For countless American children, breakfast or lunch drops out of a vending machine at school: a can of soda, perhaps, washing down a chocolate bar or a bag of potato chips.
Now, a growing number of states are striking back, trying to curb the rise in childhood obesity by placing strict limits on the sale of candy, soft drinks and fatty snacks in schools. Nearly a dozen states are considering legislation to turn off school vending machines during class time, strip them of sweets or impose new taxes on soft drinks to pay for teacher salaries and breakfast programs.
In California, legislators appear close to passing a law that will prohibit any drinks but milk, water or juice from being sold in elementary schools and curtail the hours older students can fuel up at vending machines. In Hawaii, legislators are pushing to oust sodas from school machines altogether. And in North Carolina, lawmakers are calling for a moratorium on soft-drink contracts that pay schools to pepper their halls with soda machines.
The wave of legislation, unusual for its breadth and its assertiveness, grew out of the newest statistics on child obesity from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Teen-agers today are almost three times as likely to be overweight compared to teens 20 years ago, the agency announced this year, prompting many lawmakers to take aim at the junk food they believe is to blame.
"We have a crisis on our hands," said Martha Escutia, a state senator who sponsored California’s bill, adding that 50 percent of children are overweight in some of the state’s school districts. "It can’t help when a child is eating chips and soda at 8 in the morning."
The food industry says children need more exercise, not fewer choices. The bills have also angered school administrators nationwide, intensifying a debate over the prevalence of commercial interests in the education system.
Once little more than a novelty in schools, vending machines have become a principal source of extra money for districts, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars for extracurricular activities each year. With dozens of machines lining their hallways, some schools annually earn up to $50,000 or more in commissions, then use the money for marching bands, computer centers and field trips that may otherwise fall by the wayside.
To keep such programs going, schools are emerging as the staunchest opponents of the proposed restrictions, invoking the same principles of local control that the states themselves use to fight federal standards for academic testing.
In many cases, the resistance from schools has been vociferous enough to water down or defeat measures, or at least stall them until the next legislative session rolls around.
"Let the parents, the students and the school community sit down and decide how to handle this," said Robert Meeks, legislative director for the Minnesota School Boards Association, which has organized against legislation to curtail soda sales. Meeks added that Minnesota schools earned roughly $40 million a year from vending machines. "The states only seem to be interested in local control when it suits them," he said.
Many lawmakers say they find it odd that educators are their biggest foes, considering that the schools are supposed to look after the welfare of their students.
"I can understand why school districts go in search of extra resources," said Jaime Capelo, a state representative in Texas, who introduced a measure to pare down the amount of junk food in schools. "But it’s shameful when they obtain additional resources through contracts with soda companies with little or no regard to the health of their students," he said.
Even some students express concern over the abundance of snack foods in their schools. Nell S. Geiser, a 17-year-old senior at New Vista High School in Boulder, Colo., says the vending machines in the building never shut down. At 7:30 a.m., outside classrooms with corporate symbols such as IBM painted on the walls, she says her fellow students gather in front of the humming machines, comparing schedules on daily planners with logos of the WB network, courtesy of a local television station.
"Plenty of kids make their breakfast from a Mountain Dew and a bag of Doritos," said Nell, who organizes fellow students to oppose soda contracts in schools. "You’re brought up thinking it’s all right to be constantly bombarded with ads and junk food because they’re in your school."
On average, Americans drink nearly 60 gallons of soda each year, almost 8 gallons more than they did just 10 years ago. For many lawmakers, it is a given that the increase has worsened childhood obesity. To the food industry, assigning the blame to any one type of food is simplistic.
"There are no such things as good foods and bad foods," said Chip Kunde, a legislative director for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a food industry trade group. "There are just good diets and bad diets."