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Back To School, Back To Junk Food

by Michele Simon

Schools Using Junk Food To Pump Up Test Scores

(PNS) -- As children head back to public schools this fall, they will face not only the usual challenges brought on by shrinking budgets, but also an increasing onslaught of junk foods, thanks to a powerful industry that profits from peddling fat and sugar.

In May, a national survey by the Center for Science in the Public Interest revealed that 75 percent of beverages and 85 percent of snacks sold in school vending machines were of poor nutritional quality -- soda, chips, cookies and candy. While nominal nutrition standards apply to federal school meals, anything goes for all other foods, which are sold mere steps away from the lunch line.

Over the last two years, increased focus on the dual epidemics of childhood obesity and diabetes has resulted in a groundswell of action. All across the country, parents, teachers, policymakers and others are organizing to take back their schools from the clutches of Coke and Fritos.

But mega-corporations don't go down without a fight, not with so much money at stake. Schools mean big business to the junk food industry, not just for the cash they generate, but also for the opportunity to create lifelong brand loyalty among an impressionable and captive audience.

Last year, California lawmakers tried to ban the sale of sodas in schools, but heavy lobbying from the soda industry resulted is an exemption for high schools where, not coincidentally, most soda is sold. The bill's author, California state Senator Deborah Ortiz, says she was very disappointed with the compromise, but "the food and beverage industries are extremely powerful." Testifying against the bill was the California-Nevada Soft Drink Association, a trade group whose members include Coca-Cola and PespiCo.

Just last month, California tried to set nutrition guidelines on foods sold outside the federal meal program. But thanks to last-minute lobbying by the Grocery Manufacturer's of America (GMA), that bill failed by just five votes, despite having the support of 80 nonprofit organizations. Only five groups opposed the measure -- all of whom profit from selling junk food to kids.

GMA's 140 members enjoy annual sales of more than $500 billion in the U.S. alone, and consist of major food corporations such as Kraft, Nestle and PepsiCo. GMA is on record as opposing virtually every state bill across the nation that would restrict the sale of junk food or soda in schools. A state as large as California represents huge business, so a defeat there would be devastating both for the lost profits and because of the potential domino effect.

Similar stories have been repeated all across the country -- industry lobbying resulting in either weakened or killed legislation. For example, in Indiana, Coca-Cola sent a team of five lobbyists (including a regional vice president) to defeat a bill to restrict soda sales in schools.

Also, the state of Washington recently tried to pass legislation that would have banned selling junk food and soda in schools, but 17 revisions later, the bill just requires that schools have some sort of food policy. Last year in Connecticut, advocates attempted to pass nutrition guidelines, but also wound up with a watered-down law, thanks to high-paid lobbying by both Coke and Pepsi.

While all this political activity is going on behind the scenes, these companies "who care enormously about their corporate imageł are also spending large sums of money on public relations in the wake of increasing criticism.

PepsiCo has created an entire website ( devoted to convincing the public that it cares about children's health. Coca-Cola touts its "Model Guidelines for School Beverage Partnerships," which recommends not offering soda in elementary schools during the school day, but after school is fine. Does Coke care less about children's health after school? At one high school in Maine where soda becomes available after the bell rings, the bus is delayed because kids are busy getting their fix before they board.

No matter how hard the soda and junk food companies try to position themselves as "responsible corporate citizens," the truth is they care more about the health of their own bottom lines than that of children.

Parents have enough to worry about when they send their kids back to school. The last thing they need is the junk food industry influencing their children to adopt a lifetime of poor eating habits.

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Albion Monitor September 7, 2004 (

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