ST. PETERSBURG — Starting this fall, Pinellas County high school students will find new vending machines on campus.
Out: soft drinks and sugary beverages.
In: fruit juices and flavored water.
"It bothered me that at high schools, you have carbonated beverages for sale as they walk off the bus," said Art Dunham, the district's food services director. "They (students) drink six to eight Cokes a day, and you wonder why we are having an obesity problem."
The time is ripe for change, district officials said.
For starters, new Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said he would like to shut down or restrict vending machines in schools if he can. Also, federal lawmakers last year passed the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act that calls for healthier options in school vending machines.
So, when the district's contract with Pepsi ended this school year, Dunham saw an opportunity.
In May, Pinellas School Board members approved spending $565,000 on 140 new vending machines. Dunham also worked out a business plan, which includes hiring four to six people to fill the new machines and a new vehicle to distribute the goods.
The food services department is independently funded by the federal government and lunch payments, Dunham said.
A portion of a community grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — about $1.3 million — also will be used to pay for marketing the drinks to students, said Peggy Johns, the district's prekindergarten to 12th-grade health education supervisor.
Students will pay $1 or less for the drinks, Dunham said.
Whether the new plan will bring in as much money to schools is another matter.
Traditionally, beverage corporations such as Pepsi often pay high schools an access fee for housing their vending machines and a fraction for every case of beverages sold.
Schools receive $35,000 to $50,000 from this, and principals can spend the cash on supplies, electronic equipment, student recognition programs and more.
The money is helpful when public schools' funding is being slashed. "I've been watching the budget," said Walt Weller, Seminole High principal. "I reserve it as much as I could knowing I could go into lean years."
Under Dunham's plan, schools will get to keep the proceeds of the sales. He's relying on volume to make the program profitable, though that may take a little time.
"In high schools, there are 2,000 kids in each and there are 16 high schools, so there are 36,000 kids," Dunham said. "By the end of next school year, we will break even."
But some principals noted that changing out the beverage option doesn't necessarily produce healthy students. Students will still drink what they want after school or bring their own beverages to school, Weller said.
"I agree we should give them choices, but we need to educate, educate, educate," he said.