County schools well ahead on limiting soft drinks

By Aisha I. Jefferson

The American Beverage Association recently announced a new school vending machine policy that pushes to offer more nutritious beverages in schools as a way to promote healthy lifestyles for children.

The change, however, will have little effect on the availability of soft drinks to students in school systems in Henry and Clayton counties, according to public information officers from both school systems.

The ABA board approved the policy Tuesday, encouraging ABA member companies and school administrations to implement the policy immediately with all new policies going forward, according to ABA spokeswoman Tracey Halliday.

"It is our way of taking a step to be part of the solution of childhood obesity," Halliday said.

Under the new policy, the ABA recommends that vending machines in elementary schools provide only water and 100 percent juice; those in middle schools would have only nutritious and/or lower calorie beverages, 100 percent juice drinks, sports drinks, no-calorie soft drinks, and low-calorie juice drinks; and vending machines in high schools will offer a variety of beverage choices, including bottled water, 100 percent juice drinks, sports drinks and juice drinks.

Middle school vending machines will not offer full-calorie soft drinks or full-calorie juice drinks with 5 percent or less juice until after school, while no more than 50 percent of the vending selections in high schools will not offer will be soft drinks, according to the ABA policy.

Clayton County Schools spokesman Charles White said his school system already had moved to make sure its students had more nutritious beverage options available during school hours.

The Clayton County school board has had a policy in place since 1988 that prohibits the sale of food of minimal nutritional value in elementary schools from the beginning of the school day through the end of the last meal period, White said. The sale of foods of minimal nutritional value is prohibited during meal periods in the food service areas in all Clayton County schools.

"To the best of our knowledge, there are no vending machines dispensing carbonated beverages that are accessible to students in elementary schools," White said. "Basically, the elementary schools do not have any access to that kind of thing, period."

Clayton County School's policy falls in line with the state's policy for the National School Lunch Program.

For kindergarten through fifth grades in Clayton County, no foods, as defined by the federal regulations, as being of minimal nutritional value may be sold from the beginning of the school day to the end of the last lunch period, White said.

He said those foods include carbonated beverages, chewing gum, water ices and candy. However, ice cream and fruit bars are not to be considered as part of that list.

For middle and high schools, White said vending machines with carbonated drinks are on a timer, and aren't available for student purchase until after school.

In Henry and Clayton counties, contracts with vending machine distributors are handled by individual schools and not the central office.

Henry County Schools spokeswoman Cindy Foster said many schools also have snack vending machines in addition to those containing beverages, and the revenue gained from vending machine sales is deposited into a beverage and snacks account.

In 2004, Foster said Henry County middle schools averaged $13,565 while high schools averaged $41,342. She said the revenue amount depends on a school's size and the number of vending machines it possesses.

"The larger the school, typically more money they take from vending because there are more kids to buy stuff," Foster said.

Registered dietitian Jennifer Buechner, a certified specialist in pediatrics and program coordinator at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta said she thinks the ABA's policy change is a step in the right direction.

"The provision of healthier selections in vending machines will increase awareness regarding the impact of beverage choices on health," Buechner said.

When asked if she thought carbonated soft drinks and sugary soft drinks contribute to childhood obesity, Buechner said, "they are a sources of calories without nutrients, so they can displace other nutritious items in the diet."

Buechner said there are many different causes of childhood obesity, and she cited children not drinking enough water or getting enough calcium is a greater concern.

Buechner believes that water should be sold at lower prices while "soda sold in vending machines should be sold at the highest price of all vending items."

"The provision of water in school vending machines will be successful for all parties involved if the water is marketed well; in particular, water should be priced significantly lower than other vending items," Buechner said. "Inexpensive water would increase sales, making up for price reduction."

Halliday said ABA is a trade association, not an enforcement organization, and said the responsibility of changing vending machines is up to those involved in the contract with the individual schools.