Sunday, July 13, 2003

Local school systems are examining ways to offer more nutritious choices in their soda machines as a Seattle school board faces litigation over a soft-drink contract.

New York and Los Angeles recently eliminated soft drinks from their vending machines, but school districts in the Washington area are waiting for Thursday’s vote by the Seattle school system before making any substantial changes to their beverage policies.

George Washington University law professor John Bhanzaf III several weeks ago sent a legal notice to the seven members of the Seattle Board of Education, warning they would be sued by a group of trial lawyers if they voted to extend an exclusive-rights contract with Coca-Cola Co. Inc.

Mr. Bhanzaf, who has spurred obesity-litigation efforts, contends school officials are contributing to childhood obesity by selling sugar-laden beverages in vending machines without offering healthier alternatives like water and 100-percent fruit juice.

The Prince George’s County school board is waiting on the vote before making any changes in its soft-drink vending machines, which serve some 52,000 students at middle and high schools.

Elementary schools in the Washington area do not have soda machines.

Spokeswoman Athena Ware said Prince George’s County is somewhat safeguarded from any lawsuits because it doesn’t use exclusive-rights contracts and doesn’t operate vending machines during school hours; students may buy drinks from the machines only during extracurricular events.

Larry Bowers, chief operating officer for Montgomery County Public Schools, did not rule out food changes at county schools. The system recently took doughnuts off school menus, but schools with soft-drink machines continue to sell soda, sports drinks, fruit juice and water.

“There may be more significant changes coming down the road,” Mr. Bowers said.

A health committee for Arlington County Public Schools is reviewing a range of changes in nutrition, including eliminating soft drinks from schools, said Susan Robinson, assistant superintendent for finance and management services.

Ms. Robinson said the review is not a response to legal threats.

About 90 percent of U.S. middle and high schools operate soda machines during school hours, with fewer than 10 percent of those school districts using exclusive-rights contracts, according to the National Soft Drinks Association, a D.C. trade group.

Loudoun County school officials also are closely following the Seattle case. The county does not run vending machines during school hours.

“We’re constantly changing the food services to be lower in fat and offer healthy alternatives,” spokesman Wade Byard said.

D.C. public school board member Tommy Wells of Wards 5 and 6 said the board would track soft-drink policy changes in other cities. However, changing rules for soda machines was not at the top of the priority list.

“We have a full plate” with the current budget crisis, Mr. Wells said.

Alexandria’s T.C. Williams High School has made recent health-based changes like offering water and Powerade, which has half as much sugar, in its vending machines, said Barbara Hunter, spokeswoman for the city’s public schools.

“We try to stay ahead of the curve with nutrition issues,” but the vending-machine lawsuits are not a major issue for the school district, Ms. Hunter said. T.C. Williams is the only Alexandria school to have soft-drink machines.

Fairfax County’s school board debated using exclusive-rights contracts, but has no plans to change its soda policies, said spokesman Paul Regnier. Soda machines are turned off during school hours and offer water and juice.

Despite the changes, Sean McBride, spokesman for the National Soft Drinks Association, said he did not expect school districts to begin bans on soft drinks in response to threat of litigation.

But pressure from class-action lawsuits could push Seattle and other school officials across the nation to ban soda from vending machines, as Los Angeles County and New York have done.

Last year, the Los Angeles school board voted to phase out soft drinks and sugar-laden beverages from machines that sell to some 784,000 students.

New York school officials recently passed a measure that eliminates soft drinks, hard candy and doughnuts.

At stake in Seattle is a five-year contract to exclusively sell Coke products in the city’s schools. The deal brings in $400,000 to fund extracurricular activities and field trips, said school board President Nancy Waldman.

The panel delayed the vote until Thursday and is considering changes like turning off vending machines during school hours, designating three vending slots in each machine for water and juice, and selling milk.

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