Soft Drinks, Soft Kids
Fort Worth schools biggie-size their price for information on vending contracts.
By Dan McGraw
Forth Worth Weekly Online fw.weekly.com
Susan Combs swears she is no stick in the mud. The Texas agriculture commissioner doesn't think there
is anything wrong with kids having a carbonated soft drink as a refreshment every once in a while.
"Having a soda is a fun thing for kids," Combs said. "I just don't think they should be drinking these
carbonated drinks at school."
Combs and many public health officials are now pushing schools to wean themselves from the easy
money that comes from vending machine contracts and stop the sale of soft drinks in schools, at least
until after the last lunch period. As part of her duties, Combs oversees and distributes federal monies for
school lunch programs, and she sees the sales of soft drinks as a public health issue. "Clearly, it's time
for school districts to re-examine their dependence on these type of contracts and the shortsightedness of
choosing fat profits over healthy kids," she said.
So what's wrong with kids having a Coke or Pepsi or Dr Pepper at school? Recent studies have found
that obesity rates in school-age children have more than doubled in the past 25 years, and many public
health officials think that the increase in sugary, carbonated drinks is at least part of the reason. A recent
study by Harvard University found that kids who drink at least one soft drink per day run a 60 percent
higher risk of obesity. And obesity is linked to Type-2 diabetes, hypertension, asthma, and a loss of bone
The federal government classifies vending snacks -- chips, soft drinks, candy -- as Foods of Minimal
Nutritional Value (FMNV), and these types of foods are not allowed to be sold in school cafeterias. But in
thousands of Texas schools, the vending machines are only a few steps outside the cafeteria door, and
many kids opt for a soft drink, a bag of chips, and a candy bar for lunch. In most cases, the FMNV
choices cost more than the cafeteria lunch.
Childhood obesity is causing severe health problems -- and health costs. According to a study completed
last year by the Statewide Obesity Task Force and funded by the Texas Department of Health, the
treatment of three diseases in children associated with obesity -- diabetes, sleep apnea, and gallbladder
diseases -- cost $127 million from 1997 to 1999. From 1979 to 1981, the amount was $35 million. The
panel, made up of 20 public health officials, concluded that, "If nothing is done to stop this epidemic of
obesity, children of this generation, on average, are unlikely to live as long as their parents."
Earlier this month, the American Academy of Pediatrics, which represents 57,000 physicians, issued a
policy statement asking schools to stop selling soft drinks to children through campus vending machines.
Soft drink consumption has increased by 300 percent in the past 20 years among schoolchildren,
according to the AAP, which says the prevalence of soft drinks in schools is one of the reasons for the
increase in childhood obesity. The AAP estimated that each 16-ounce bottle of soda contains the
equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar.
The issue for school districts seems to be money versus public health. School districts like Fort Worth can
make up to $1 million through vending contracts with the soft drink bottlers. That money is used for
athletics and other programs and sometimes to defray costs of things like field trips and band
competitions that are usually paid for by parents. But some experts see the programs as nothing more
than trading children's health for cash. John Banzhaf III, a law professor at George Washington
University, calls the programs "Cokes for Kickbacks" and believes that school boards will find themselves
being sued for providing unsafe environments for children. Banzhaf and other attorneys are considering
suing the Seattle school board over sales of soft drinks there.
While public schools districts in New York City, Austin, Los Angeles, Buffalo, and Philadelphia have all
banned sales of carbonated soft drinks in their schools, the issue has barely appeared on the radar
screen at Fort Worth school district offices. The district allows the principals of its schools to make their
own deals with vending companies, and district administrators seem not to know what kind of contracts
the schools have in place or what type of revenues the contracts produce.
Last May, Combs, as a private citizen, sent out a request under Texas' open-records law asking the
state's 1,256 school districts for information on their vending contracts. A total of 932 districts responded.
The largest school district in the state not to provide information: Fort Worth. The district didn't refuse to
hand over the figures, but officials told Combs it would cost her $1,500 to get the information. No other
district charged anywhere near that -- the next highest charge, in fact, was $400. Combs decided not to
shell out the $1,500.
Acting in her official capacity in November, Combs requested similar information from Fort Worth and
every other school district in the state. She said that all but a handful of districts have responded, with
Fort Worth, again, among those that didn't provide information. The purpose of Combs' official survey was
to find out the volume of business being handled by vending machines and how that affects cafeteria
Fort Worth school officials did not respond to Fort Worth Weekly's questions about Combs' survey. When
the Weekly made a similar request earlier this month, district officials estimated it would cost $1,313 to
provide the information.
Deals made by other large school districts illustrate the scope of such contracts. Dallas, for instance, has
an exclusive five-year contract with Coca-Cola, by which the district was paid $1.9 million up front and
receives additional annual payments of $845,000 to $593,000. In addition, the district receives a 55
percent commission on each carbonated drink sold.
Fort Worth school trustee Juan Rangel defended the district's charge for the information. "When we
process requests like this, we want to make sure every bit of information is put out, not partial
information," he said. "In this case, we would have had to get the information from all 143 schools."
Rangel said the issue of soft drinks in the schools has come up in "casual conversation" among trustees
during the past few months. "This is a sticky issue," Rangel said. "We are for kids having access to better
health, but we need to know just exactly what role soft drinks have in obesity of our children, and is that
risk really coming from the schools. Is the problem soft drinks, or is it fast food or lack of exercise? We
don't want to blame it on just one thing."
Jay Long, community relations manager for the Coca-Cola Bottling Company of North Texas, estimates
that Coke has contracts in about 60 percent of the Fort Worth schools. Long said Coke will work with
whatever plan the district wants to put in place, including increasing healthy drink options in the vending
machines. "Soft drinks are part of everyday life," Long said. "Coke has been a part of the community for a
hundred years. We stand for quality products, and we support healthy youth programs. We want to be
part of the solution for healthy and active kids."
As part of that solution, Coke has sponsored health programs and gives school supplies to three
Northside middle schools -- J.P. Elder, Meacham, and Kirkpatrick. The three schools are primarily
Hispanic, and there lies a conundrum for the district. Studies suggest that Coke products are affecting
Hispanic and African-American children even more strongly than their white classmates. Those groups --
which make up about 80 percent of FWISD enrollment -- have the highest childhood obesity rates.
In a 2001 study by the University of North Texas Health Science Center, obesity rates among Fort Worth
schoolchildren were above state and national averages. About 30 percent were found to be overweight or
obese, but the rates for African-American (32.8%) and Hispanic (31.9) children, were much higher than
for Caucasians (23.5%). "This is much more of a problem for minority students," said Dr. Ximena Urrutia-
Rojas, a researcher at the Health Science Center and co-author of the study. "We also know that minority
children have less access to health insurance, so this group is less likely to have health care.
"We really need to implement policy on this in Fort Worth," she continued. "We know what causes obesity
in kids, and we know that soft drinks and junk food are part of the problem. We know what the
consequences are: diabetes, dialysis, and amputations. It works at cross-purposes to try to teach kids
about healthy eating and then have them walk outside the classroom and into the hall and buy candy and
Combs thinks the schools can find a way to make up for the money they will lose if vending machines are
turned off during the school day. She estimates that schools in Texas make $54 million from the vending
contracts but lose about $60 million in federal matching funds when kids opt for a lunch of a Coke and a
bag of Cheetos instead of using the cafeteria lunch line.
Trustee Rangel says the school board will be looking at the issue of soft drink sales in the FWISD "very
soon." When they do, presumably, district officials will provide information on the money being made -- or
lost -- on such contracts, and trustees will also consider the health costs to the students themselves.