Beverage firms accused of unfair profits from school vending

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

The majority of the revenue from US school beverage contracts goes
to beverage firms and not schools, according to a new report, which
claims its findings should encourage schools to replace sodas with
healthier drinks.

Released yesterday by the consumer advocacy groups Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and Public Health Advocacy Institute (PHAI), the report claims to be the first ever multi-state analysis of school systems' contracts with beverage companies.

However, its publication has resulted in an immediate reaction from the industry, with trade group American Beverage Association (ABA) calling the report "outdated"​ , "inaccurate"​ and "uninformed"​ .

Supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Argosy Foundation, the study analyzed 120 contracts in 16 states. Out of these, 64 were with PepsiCo, 53 with Coca-Cola and 3 with smaller regional manufacturers. Almost all (93 percent) of the school beverage contracts were exclusive.

And according to CSPI/PHAI, these deals were generally not very beneficial for schools, raising an average of only $18 per student per year, with some schools clearly getting better deals than others.

"Selling sugary drinks in vending machines and elsewhere in schools doesn't pump money into the community, it drains it,"​ said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo Wootan.

"It's not philanthropic behavior on the part of soft drink companies, it's predatory. When a kid puts a dollar in a soft drink vending machine, the school is lucky to keep 33 cents. And the money comes from parents' and kids' pocketbooks,"​ she added.

But the ABA accuses the report of ignoring major components in school vending contracts.

"This report inaccurately portrays the finances behind contracts by ignoring the costs incurred by industry and it misleads the public about what is actually taking place in schools,"​ said Susan Neely, president and chief executive officer of the ABA.

"The fact is the beverage industry has stepped up and led on school wellness, as the first industry to adjust what it sells in schools. Our efforts to strengthen schools have been recognized by the American Heart Association, the Clinton Foundation, school officials and an array of health and nutrition advocacy groups. And we're providing schools with a revenue stream to invest in underfunded academic programs and health and fitness activities for students."

Indeed, voluntary guidelines announced in May by former President Clinton, the ABA, the American Heart Association and leading soda firms aim to reduce portion sizes and restrict soda sales in schools over the next three years. But CSPI claims that schools are not a party to that agreement, and "it remains to be seen if schools will comply with the guidelines".

According to CSPI's analysis of ABA figures, high school students drink the equivalent of about 40 20-ounce bottles of non-diet soft drinks per year, while middle schoolers drink about 14 20-ounce bottles.

And with soft drinks thought to be the single largest source of calories in children's diets, they have been repeatedly blamed for the rising rates of childhood obesity.

As a result, moves have been made to remove the drinks from a number of school districts, including Boston, Chicago, the District of Columbia, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle.

But policies addressing junk food and soda sales in the nation's schools remain inconsistent and often weak.

Indeed, a bill was recently introduced in Congress proposing a radical overhaul of the nutritional standards for foods sold in schools. The Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act of 2006, supported by over 100 organizations, as well as Senators Tom Harkin and Lisa Murkowski, and Representatives Lynn Woolsey and Christopher Shays, aims to revise the current definition of 'foods of minimal nutritional value' that are permitted for sale in schools.

The current definition, which dates back to 1979 and which focuses on whether a food has at least minimal amounts of one of eight nutrients, has been accused of being obsolete. The new definition is designed to conform to current nutrition science.

According to CSPI, its new report will go a long way to encouraging healthier product sales in schools.

"Schools, state lawmakers and members of Congress, who are considering replacing soft drinks in vending machines with healthier options, should be reassured by our findings,"​ said Wootan.

"Generally, the revenue generated by soft drink sales in schools is modest and could be replaced by the sale of healthier beverages or by alternative fundraisers that don't undermine children's diets or health."

To access the full CSPI/PHAI report, click here​.

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