Tuesday, May 09, 2006


Don Quixote would feel at home there

Jordan Mitchell glared playfully at friend Elizabeth Sanchez as Mitchell clutched a 20-ounce bottle of Sprite Remix. "She got the last Diet Coke," Mitchell announced as Caddo Magnet High School students swarmed around them at a row of vending machines outside the school cafeteria Friday.

Mitchell and Sanchez are aware of major soda retailers' plans to eliminate sugary soft drinks from school campuses in the next three years. Mitchell shrugs at what amounts to a vending revolution. "I really don't have a problem with it," Mitchell said. "It's still a choice, and you can still drink one that you got from the gas station on the way to school in the morning."

Anna Hamiter, another friend, disagrees with the plan. "I would rather have a choice of diet or regular," Hamiter said. "It would be more like a democracy." Substitute teacher Anthony W. Fabio agrees in theory with the retailers' agreement, but his family embodies the reality of a soda-guzzling world. "We can't live without soda pop," Fabio said as he held a regular Sprite. "I sneak sodas in to my twin daughters who are students here. One daughter, Siobhan, drinks milk. The other, Kaitlin, religiously drinks soda pop, and it must not be diet. She's addicted to Dr Pepper."

The national retailers' agreement goes far beyond a 2005 state law that sought to limit high-calorie foods and beverages on school campuses. State Sen. Diana E. Bajoie, D-New Orleans, said she's pleased with the plan. Bajoie, in 2005, co-sponsored a law that limits what soda and snack venders can offer at schools. "We've had several schools that volunteered to participate," Bajoie said. "It shows we were ahead of the curve. It's going to help the children in the long-run. It's not so much the food they eat. Some children, they drink four and five sodas a day, and that's a lot of calories and carbohydrates."

The 2005 law requires that at least half of beverages on high school campuses be milk, water, juice or sports drinks, with a phase-in as existing soft drink vending contracts expire. Local principals aren't arguing healthy choices are better, but they question how the new guidelines would be phased in and if this focus on vending machines is really addressing the obesity problem.

Wednesday's announcement by the soft drink retailers brought back old feelings for Airline High Principal Kim Gaspard. Gaspard testified before a legislative committee on behalf of himself and other schools already in long contracts with beverage dealers when legislators consider the new state law in 2005. "We've not seen any (national) law yet, so it's hard to comment on how it would affect us," Gaspard said. "But I've signed a contract with Coca-Cola that has to be considered. It's hurting us in the pocketbook and it will take some time for kids to get used to buying the other products."

With changes inevitable, Coke has already made several switches in the machines at Airline, including 100 percent fruit drinks, added Gaspard. Water has become the number two seller behind Coke, with Diet Coke third. And at Broadmoor Middle School in Shreveport, some students are responding to healthier beverages. A machine that dispenses low-fat flavored milk sweetened with sugar substitutes joined the familiar soft drink machines in a hall near Broadmoor Middle School's cafeteria and gym this year. The varieties include flavors named after popular candy bars. "That Three Musketeers is da bomb," said Charles Antwine, a sixth-grader.

Cope Middle School Principal Judy Grooms believes for the most part, students will choose from what's available. Children can buy from the vending machines for 10 minutes during the lunch shift. The school gets quarterly payments that range from $250 to $300, which go toward a variety of things, including academic incentives, ink cartridges, the library and school events. Just like the income, interest in the vending machines by children has always been consistent, but not huge, which makes Grooms question if restocking beverage vending machines is the answer. "The children buying beverages are not necessarily overweight," Grooms said. "And if you went into our cafeteria, while they're trying to improve their nutritional value of their meals, they do sell extras that are not particularly healthy choices, like slushy drinks and ice cream. The school lunch program gets the money from that."

Education in choices should be more of the focus, she believes. "It's not quite the answer as much as the lifestyle in our homes and what we choose. An occasional soft drink is not bad, but a soft drink every day is not good."

Some middle schools set stricter limits on sweets and sodas. Ridgewood Middle School in Shreveport opens its soda machines after school, and then only to children who walk home. Students can buy only sports drinks and fruit drinks during the day after physical education classes. Opening soda machines only to walkers is a way to discourage bus riders from violating a rule against food and beverages on buses, said Gerald Burrow, Ridgewood principal. Ridgewood continues to offer regular soft drinks after school despite signing a new vending contract after the 2005 law was passed. The 2005 state law requires middle schools to offer only fruit juices, water and milk -- but Burrow said local Pepsi officials told him Ridgewood was exempt from the law because contract negotiations were underway before the law went into effect.

Green Oaks High School Principal Cleveland White isn't sure what will show up in his school's vending machines in the future. Green Oaks just inked a three-year contract with Coca-Cola's Shreveport bottling company. The school will receive $5,800 a year, a percentage of machine sales, free products for fundraisers and among other incentives. White worries that he'll lose extra money for football uniforms and copier supplies if students turn up their noses at diet soft drinks. "They have been an asset to the school financially, as far as our operating budget and providing scholarships and donations to athletics," White said.


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