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Editorial: School district now frowns on Coke and a smile

The soft drink deal has gone flat. The Pasco School District says it will end its 15-year effort giving soft drink companies exclusive access to students when the current contract with Coca-Cola expires next month. It's a smart move that reflects a greater concern for children's health than for financial benefit.

Conceived before national concerns about childhood obesity, the district's original arrangement dated to 1999 with Pepsi. It allowed the soft drink company exclusive access to students via on-campus vending machines and sales at athletic events and other school activities in exchange for giving schools a piece of the profits. The 10-year contribution to schools had been projected as high as $5.7 million and the district said the money financed school trips, athletic field renovations, computer equipment, scholarships and miscellaneous supplies like American flags, homework folders and student planners.

Despite the windfall, it was disconcerting to see schools shilling access to thousands of children. And it shows the potential consequence when the state is reluctant to properly fund its public education system. Schools looked elsewhere for financial help.

Five years after the contract began, a previous School Board ducked a decision on whether to expand Pepsi product sales in high schools by leaving the final say to individual school advisory councils. Earlier state guidelines had barred the sale of carbonated products in high schools until an hour after the last lunch period, though bottled water, ice tea and Gatorade were available in cafeterias.

The state rules changed, however, allowing soda to be sold all day as long as non-carbonated alternatives were available in the same machines. Instead of reining in the sales, a board majority punted and rationalized the decision by noting other sugary products are available to students anyway.

What nonsense. Schools should limit potential medical and dental problems for students, not turn a blind eye to it. Two advisory councils wisely agreed and both Gulf and Pasco high schools rejected the offer of all-day soda sales. Administrators said revenues shouldn't supersede concerns for kids.

That smart attitude spread and the 2009 deal with Coca-Cola followed new federal nutritional guidelines intended to combat childhood obesity. The schools could sell flavored water, fruit juices and low-calorie sports drinks rather than sugary, carbonated soda. The healthy alternatives diminished sales, however, and the district netted only half its estimated $1.4 million from the five-year Coke contract.

Even with the hit to the pocketbook, it was a wise switch. More than a quarter of Florida's children age 10 to 17 are considered overweight or obese, according to National Kids Count. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says one of every nine Florida high school students is obese.

While the school district will still make water, juices and low calorie drinks available for sale, the end of the contract means one company will no longer have exclusive, unfettered access to build its market share on teen-age purchases during school hours.

Chip Wichmanowski, the former head of the Pasco Education Foundation who oversaw the contracts, characterized the expiration of the Coke deal as "the end of an era.'' Indeed. And, good riddance.

Editorial: School district now frowns on Coke and a smile 04/30/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 30, 2014 6:50pm]
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