LAND O'LAKES — Students at Sunlake High School knew something was amiss the moment they arrived for classes on Monday.
It had nothing to do with their courses or teachers. The soda machines were missing.
Senior Proctor Daniels lamented the change: "Between class changes, people would go get a soda. I think we should have sodas."
The machines' absence was temporary — at all schools. It just took some time to replace the 290 Pepsi vending machines with those from Coca-Cola, as part of the district's switch in service for the first time in a decade.
But what will not change is the absence of sugared sodas for students.
They're out as part of new health guidelines that schools and the beverage industry adopted in recent years to combat childhood obesity. And as flavored waters, fruit juices and low-calorie sports drinks take the place of those sodas, school districts that granted exclusive sales agreements to beverage companies are hurting on the bottom line.
Pasco's district, which took in millions through the Pepsi deal, will see its drink-related revenue shrink by $250,000 a year with Coca-Cola as the sales opportunities change. Continuing with Pepsi once nonsugared drinks were mandated would have brought in even less.
"We cannot sell any of the sugared products under the new contract," said Rick Kurtz, director of food and nutrition services. "That's huge. That's where they are branded."
The loss of funds hits the district particularly hard at a time of dwindling state resources. It was one of the few pots of money the schools could use without any strings attached, and it often paid for things such as athletic officials and supplies. "That's the biggest hit," Kurtz said.
On the plus side, he said, Coca-Cola offered a more diversified product line than Pepsi could provide. These include items such as Fuze and Dasani flavored waters and Minute Maid juices.
Coca-Cola also increased the percentage commission that schools receive for their vending machine sales.
Last year, Sunlake High averaged $79.20 a day, for a total of just more than $14,000 in soda sales revenue. Athletic director Matt McDermott said the money went to support all sports programs at the school.
Bigger schools netted more. River Ridge High, for example, made $123.62 per day, or just over $22,000.
Kurtz said he hopes the increased number of offerings will keep sales steady. He predicted that the flavored waters, as well as Powerade, will prove popular.
While Sunlake High student Daniels complained about the lack of real Coke ("Early in the morning you need something sugary to help you wake up.''), he and others generally welcomed the new options.
"I was shocked they were taking the vending machines out. Now I know they're putting new ones in. That's great," said senior Marissa Garcia, a dancer and athlete. "Occasionally I like the soda, because everyone needs it and it's good. But mainly I just drink water."
Freshman Chris Tejas said he didn't mind not being able to buy full-sugar soda.
"I can have soda when I get home, and something healthy when I get here," said Tejas, an admitted "Coke person." "It seems like now we have more choices."
Pasco continues to seek other ways to further improve offerings while also reducing the financial impact. It has asked Coca-Cola to consider putting out 12-ounce bottles of flavored Dasani water, for instance, to sell at the middle schools. "We could sell oodles of it," Kurtz said.
The district is also trying to work with Coca-Cola to have the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which set the beverage guidelines, approve a Powerade Zero as something other than a sports drink, so it could be sold in middle schools too.
For now, diet sodas are still available in high schools. But that's up to individual principals and, in time, they could disappear too, said district nutritionist Maggie Giunta.
"They're always sort of blaming the schools for obesity," Giunta said. "So we keep doing our part."
Kids still can bring sodas from home, though. The schools won't be going on Pepsi patrol any time soon.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.