May 2nd, 2002
TEA Slaps Lid on School Junk Foods; New Guidelines are Instituted to Combat Child Obesity
By Lucy Hood
San Antonio Express-News
In the latest effort to crack down on childhood obesity, the Texas Education Agency issued guidelines Wednesday to restrict the sale of soda pop and junk food at school.
Carbonated beverages and foods that have a minimal nutritional value, such as gum, licorice and hard candies, have been banned from school cafeterias for years, but the new restrictions now prevent their sale in other common areas of a campus where students eat meals.
“The ultimate goal is to keep food with empty calories away from children during the school day,” TEA spokeswoman Debbie Graves Ratcliffe said.
When the new regulations take effect at the beginning of the 2002-2003 school year, she said, they will apply to a very targeted group of foods and to a limited part of the day - breakfast and lunch.
“It’s not a ban on vending machines,” Graves Ratcliffe said.
They can be unplugged while meals are served, she said, and schools can move them to another location - a hallway, an auditorium or a gymnasium.
Representatives from the local Coca-Cola and Pepsi bottling companies, which have multimillion-dollar contracts with four school districts in Bexar County, said they would have to evaluate the new policy before drawing any conclusions.
But both emphasized they produce numerous noncarbonated beverages, including fruit juices and sports drinks, and Pepsi spokeswoman Kelly McAndrew said “physical activity is without question the most important factor to affect weight.”
Exclusive contracts with soft drink companies became popular in the late 1990s. Northside entered into a $14 million contract with Pepsi, and the San Antonio, North East and Alamo Heights school districts signed contracts with Coca-Cola for $9.1 million, $15.5 million and $750,000, respectively.
What kind of an impact, if any, the new regulations will have on these contracts remains to be seen. School officials said it will come down to a campus-by-campus decision, primarily at the high school level.
At Fox Tech High School, for example, soda pop machines are unplugged during breakfast and lunch, so there will be no change. But Principal Joanne Cockrell still expressed her dismay at TEA’s approach to addressing childhood obesity.
“You think they’d be more interested in education,” she said, “rather than what snacks they (the students) are having.”
Cockrell said she typically agrees with TEA, but the new restrictions do not make sense when school cafeterias serve dessert with lunch.
“What’s the difference,” she said, “between having a soda water, or a piece of cake or a piece of pie?”
TEA, acting as a middle man for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, officially informed the state’s 1,040 school districts Wednesday of the new junk food rules, but they were created by the federal government, which oversees subsidized lunch programs in public schools.
TEA will be the enforcer of the new guidelines. If campuses violate the policy, they stand to lose some of their federal lunch money, Graves Ratcliffe said.
Food service providers in local districts do not foresee major problems. Northside and North East already ban taboo food products from most of their snack machines, and the options for dealing with carbonated beverages are not drastic, they said.
The more pressing question for some is whether the new policy will have much of an impact. If bottling companies, for example, replace sodas with fruit drinks, said North East Food Service Director Meg Domas, it would satisfy the new guidelines and it would also be a sign of progress, but not necessarily a significant one.
“In reality, some noncarbonated drinks are not much different from carbonated drinks,” she said. “But I think it’s a step.”