School soft-drink
vendors use fizzy logic


The state school board has agreed to restrict sales of soft drinks from vending machines in public schools.

THE national obesity epidemic has prompted the state Board of Education to restrict the amount of soft drinks available in vending machines at public schools. A total ban on soda sales in schools would have been preferable, but some schools want to protect revenue they receive from vendors.

In compliance with federal law, foods of minimal nutritional value, including soft drinks, are not allowed to be sold in Hawaii's school cafeterias during the breakfast or lunch hours. However, the American Soft Drink Association reports that 60 percent of the nation's middle and high schools sell soft drinks, usually from vending machines.

Researchers at Louisiana State University recently learned from federal consumption records that an increase in the use of high-fructose corn sweeteners in soft drinks in the late 1970s and 1980s coincided with the rapid rise in obesity. "Body weights rose slowly for most of the 20th century until the late 1980s," said George A. Bray, one of the researchers. "At that time, many countries showed a sudden increase in the rate at which obesity has been galloping forward."

In Hawaii, research has established that 4 to 6 percent of public school children were overweight before 1980, compared with 19 to 25 percent today. A study published in January showed that Hawaii spends $290 million a year on health costs connected with obesity.

More than 40 public schools in Hawaii have soda vending machines. The schools use them to raise money for various purposes, such as clubs, uniforms and yearbooks.

That factor undoubtedly was more important in the school board's decision to allow some soda sales than soft drink manufacturers' argument that their products can be part of a balanced diet. A report last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that only 2 percent of the nation's schoolchildren were meeting its Food Guide Pyramid serving recommendations for all five major food groups.

The school board's new policy requires that vending machines "contain primarily healthy beverages as deemed appropriate by the Department of Education. Schools Superintendent Patricia Hamamoto is directed to draw up the specific regulations, which may require that as much as 80 percent of the drink selections be healthy beverages, such as fruit juices and milk.

That policy probably will continue until Congress establishes stricter rules. Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Richard Lugar, R-Ind., have introduced legislation to more broadly regulate soft drink and junk food sales throughout school grounds, not just in cafeterias. "When students fill up on sodas and junk food," Leahy said, "it displaces the balanced nutrition available in the cafeteria."



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