“As kids return to school this fall, a battle is heating up over what kind of lunch and vending machine options should be allowed in schools,” says LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck. “Unhealthy weight is becoming a big issue across the United States and Canada, and alarms are sounding about rising childhood obesity. Parents, school officials, legislators and soda makers are taking note. Change is on the way.”

Two fronts of struggle developed rapidly this past year. One involves school nutrition standards; the other is about soda and snacks sold in school vending machines.

During the 1980s and early 90s, as school budgets tightened and local officials looked for “entrepreneurial” ways to sustain school operations, the soda manufacturing and vending industry moved heavily into schools. By pitting Coke versus Pepsi, lucrative deals were possible.

According to a report in the Washington Post, at High Point High School outside Washington, D.C., a quarter of the school-based operating budget – $98,000 – comes from vending machines sales. Nearby, Montgomery Blair High School negotiated a 10-year deal under which Pepsi agreed to pay a one-time fee of $100,000, a minimum annual commission of $55,000 and $1,450 annually for promotional materials for the school in exchange for exclusive access, the option to place 18 vending machines around the school and the principal’s promise to keep the student population above 2,100. The trend, of course, was not confined to suburban D.C. President Bush’s Secretary of Education, Roderick R. Paige, brought in a $5 million dollar contract with Coca-Cola when he ran the Houston public schools.

According to a report by the Government Accounting Office, 83 percent of American elementary schools, 97 percent of middle schools and 99 percent of high schools sell food or drinks out of vending machines.

However, the mushrooming data on childhood obesity has put a damper on these enterprises lately. Just twenty years ago, about five percent of American teenagers were overweight. Today, that number has reached 14 percent. Even more troublesome, say health officials, is the number of overweight children age six to 11: 13 percent. According to a report in the International Journal of Pediatric Obesity, by 2010, nearly half the children in North America will be overweight or obese.

Inevitably, the soda industry came into the crosshairs of public health advocates. In 2003, California – the state with the most students in public schools – banned the sale of sugared soda in its schools. New York City schools banned all drinks except low-fat milk, water and 100 percent fruit juice. Momentum developed in a number of other states and this past July, Connecticut joined the effort with a ban on regular or diet soda as well as sports drinks (such as Gatorade).

Seeing the handwriting on the wall in 2005, the American Beverage Association – the trade association of Coke, Pepsi and other beverage manufacturers – urged a ban on the sale of soda in elementary schools, but that did not end objections to sales in middle and high schools. Thus, on May 3rd of this year, the association joined former President Bill Clinton and the American Heart Association in announcing a voluntary agreement to stopping selling regular soft drinks in all public schools.

The agreement will be phased in over a four-year period. Critics objected to the sports drink exception (a 12-ounce Gatorade has 90 calories compared to 150 in a 12-ounce Pepsi), but many nutrition advocates praised the pact, saying kids may turn to water or milk once the soda option is removed.

Cynics, of course, pointed out that students have plenty of other options for getting their sodas and bringing them to school, and they complained that the agreement would simply cut further into school programs that depend on fundraising.

Clinton, however, who has made unhealthy weight a priority of his post-Presidency agenda, called the beverage industry “courageous” and said he hoped to broaden the impact by negotiating similar deals with snack food vendors.

According to a 2004 study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CPSI), while 75 percent of the drinks sold in school vending machines are of poor nutritional quality, the same can be said for 85 percent of the snacks.

Food and drinks sold in school cafeterias during breakfast or lunch are supposed to be restricted by criteria defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1979, before the widespread installation and day-long operation of vending machines in schools. Under those guidelines, however, products such as French fries, ice cream, Snickers, Oreos, pizza, whole milk, Cheetos and donuts are authorized for sale in school cafeterias.

According to the CPSI and other school food reform movement advocates, the old guidelines need to be updated with current nutrition science and they need to be applied throughout the school day and across the entire campus (not just in the cafeteria). Thus, Senator Tom Harkin (D – IA) and a bipartisan handful of other Congressmen have introduced the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act of 2006.

This bill would require the Secretary of Agriculture to update the USDA nutrition standards and extend them to cover all foods sold on school grounds. Harkin says, “Junk food sales in schools are out of control. It undercuts our investment in school meal programs and steers kids toward a future of obesity and diet-related disease.”

“While this bill has little chance of passing before this fall’s election, it is likely to be reintroduced in the next Congressional session,” says Borck. “Soda and snack food in school is only a small part of the overall problem, but changes at schools are highly visible corrections that undermine the construction of youthful junk food habits. Parents can reinforce the message with their own efforts at home.”