Health vs. money at stake in debate over school pop machines

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Capital News Service
LANSING — When does money become more important than health?
That question is being posed by advocates of a new House bill to prohibit the sale of soda pop in elementary and middle schools, but allowing the sale of such beverages during after-school hours in high schools.
“This is about money. It is about the almighty dollar,” said Rep. Virg Bernero, D-Lansing, who sponsored the bill. He said school officials see the dollar signs and think of the new things that the money could bring for their schools, such as buses and scoreboards.
But, some who oppose the bill think the money raised by the pop machines may not be such a bad thing.
“The relationship between schools and soft-drink companies has been going on for decades,” said Bill Lobenherz, president of the Michigan Soft Drink Association. “It is an important source of revenue for the schools.”
School officials have mixed opinions.
“To be quite honest, I am not sure if all school programs would be able to function without the Pepsi sales,” said Romeo High School Principal Julie Markhan.
If the bill went into effect the state would need to subsidize the lost revenues, she said.
J.W. Dunlop, the principal of Zemmer Junior High School in Lapeer, said that even if pop sales were eliminated as a means of revenue it would not really affect his school.
“We’d make it up some other way,” Dunlop said. “We’re not like high schools. I know that high schools rely on that (pop sales) a lot more for programs.”
Rep. Steven Ehardt, R-Lexington, said he understands that schools get revenue from pop sales but that schools should never balance money with the health needs of children.
“If somebody said to me, ‘What’s more important: money for some programs or the health of our children?’ It’s a simple question — the health of our children is more important,” Ehardt said.
Although he agreed that the legislation is a good idea, Ehardt said that banning pop may not be the best approach. He thought a “win-win” situation would be finding a way for schools to receive revenue from milk and fruit juice sales.
Even if the legislation passed, critics are unsure if that would stop students from drinking pop.
“As far as health concerns go, I think kids are going to find access to what they want,” Markhan said.
If the proposal went into effect, students would simply bring pop from home and keep it in their lockers, she said.
“I would clearly love to see pop removed from schools but that is unrealistic,” said Marilyn Mook, a registered dietician and health and nutrition professor at Michigan State University.
Mook thinks that an alternative approach to the health of students may be more nutritional education.
But teaching health in schools isn’t enough, according to Bernero.
“We are squandering the opportunity to get children on the proper nutritional and health course,” Bernero said. “We send mixed messages when we teach about healthy lifestyles, eating and exercise and then release students to the cafeteria filled with garbage.”
But, just because pop is available doesn’t necessarily mean students are going to drink it.
Karly Chambers, an MSU journalism freshman, said that while pop machines were prevalent in her school, she didn’t buy pop often.
“I like it, but I don’t really drink it that much,” Chambers said.
However, Bernero said, the omnipresence of soda pop in public schools is “like throwing water on a drowning person.”
“Students now drink two times as much soda pop as milk, which is the reverse of 20 years ago,” Bernero said.
The health risks are not a fair trade for the short-term gain of school facilities and programs, Bernero said. He said that Americans believe there are coincidences between the high levels of obesity in Michigan and the pop available in schools.
The number of overweight teens increased to 14 percent in 1999. This was from 11 percent in the 1988 to 1994 period, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Tooth decay, which sugar contributes to, is also the most chronic childhood disease, according to Sonja Norris, the director of Healthy Smiles Dental Center in Lansing.
“It is only appropriate that Michigan takes what some may consider a dramatic move by removing soft drinks from the schools,” said William Chase, president of the Michigan Dental Association.
However, the Soft Drink Association strongly objects to the bill.
“Right now, under federal guidelines, pop machines are turned off in the cafeterias anyway (morning and lunch hours),” Lobenherz said. Schools themselves also have local control of where to place machines and what to put in them, Lobenherz added.
“I don’t agree with the legislation because people are free to make their own decisions,” Chambers said. “This deals with freedom of choice.”
Even if pop were removed from schools it would still be consumed by students, and that is not entirely bad, Mook said. Pop is not so bad in itself; the problem is with the amount, she said.
“I think the health risks come when people substitute soft drinks for other drinks like milk and fruit juice, which have more nutritional value,” Mook said.
Anyway, she said, pop will probably never leave schools.
“Pop represents revenue and money talks.”
© 2002, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism

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