A Fat Nation
America's `supersize' diet is fattier and sweeter--and deadlier
About 50 percent of school districts have "pouring rights" contracts that allow soft drink companies to sell beverages in the districts' schools; some schools have individual contracts instead. Schools and districts receive a percentage of sales. At 37 percent of schools, payments are tied directly to a quota of drink sales. One Colorado administrator wrote a memo suggesting that in order to sell enough soft drinks, faculty and staff "allow students to purchase and consume vended products throughout the day."
School administrators say they have to sign these agreements to have money to provide students with computers, sports teams, and more. Even Education Secretary Roderick Paige negotiated a $5 million exclusive contract with Coca-Cola in 2000 when he headed the Houston school district.
It should not be surprising, then, that the USDA reports 56 percent to 85 percent of children drink sodas every day. Adolescent boys drink, on average, three sugared soft drinks a day; even toddlers drink 7 ounces. Soft drinks have replaced milk in many youngsters' diets.
Soft drinks are increasingly under attack for their possible contribution to childhood obesity. David Ludwig, director of the Obesity Program at Children's Hospital Boston, says his research shows that "for every additional serving of soft drinks a day, a child's risk of becoming obese increases by 60 percent." Ludwig's soft drink study also suggests that calories from sugar-sweetened drinks do not seem to be as filling as calories from other foods.
Soon after Ludwig's results hit the media, studies paid for by the National Soft Drink Association, used government data to show that soft drinks do not cause pediatric obesity. "If you go through all the scientific evidence, you see there is no link between sugar consumption or soft-drink consumption and obesity," says Sean McBride of the NSDA. "Any food or beverage that contains calories can contribute to weight gain, but singling out any one factor for a very complex problem is misguided." This debate is only beginning: New data from Denmark indicate that overweight adults who consumed the equivalent of about two to four 20-ounce nondiet soft drinks per day for 10 weeks gained weight and body fat and their blood pressure increased, compared with a control group drinking artificially sweetened beverages.
School rules. Efforts are underway in at least 10 states to limit the sale of soft drinks and snack foods in schools, and some states have already imposed restrictions. Under USDA regulations, foods of "minimal nutritional value," such as soft drinks, are not to be sold where National School Lunch and Breakfast meals are served and eaten. To get around the rule, some schools put vending machines and snack bars outside, but near, school cafeterias.
But last spring, the Texas Education Agency issued a directive to districts that beginning this fall foods of minimal nutritional value will not be sold in cafeterias, hallways, or common areas--at all. California legislators passed a bill scheduled to take effect in 2004 that sets nutritional standards for food sold in elementary schools and effectively bans sodas, high-fat foods, and fruit drinks with less than 50 percent juice or with added sugar. A bill to phase out soft-drink sales in all schools failed, however. The food industry opposed the bill, but so did the California Teachers Association, which argued that schools would be deprived of needed cash. "For society to fund education by promoting consumption of such unhealthy products," says Boston's Ludwig, "is among the worst kinds of investments we can make."