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Let students have their soda

Finally, we have a school food fight to rival the silliness of the old question of whether ketchup is a vegetable. This time, some folks think high school students aren't adult enough to drink soda with lunch.

Put aside for a moment the obvious point that most high-schoolers can simply get in their cars and drive to a store to buy a soft drink, or that teens are crafty enough to bring their drink of choice in a backpack. If you choose to take this issue seriously, the debate raging in Tallahassee is whether these teens should be allowed to choose a Coke or Pepsi over more nutritious beverages such as milk and juice when they eat lunch.

Currently, high-schoolers can't buy a soda until at least one hour after the last school meal is served. Pinellas County officials are leading the fight to persuade Gov. Jeb Bush and the Cabinet to roll back that restriction and trust teens to make their own beverage selections.

The nutritionists who oppose the move are correct that sugar-filled soft drinks lack the health benefits of orange juice. But if the school lunch czars allow high school students to eat pizza and french fries and even drink fatty milk, why not a soda?

"If I had a nutritionist following me around dictating to me what I can eat out of the refrigerator or any time, I'd never be eating anything," said John Bowen, attorney for the Pinellas school district.

Of course, school district officials aren't advocating soft-drink sales out of noble concern for students' freedom of choice. They like the idea of selling sodas because it can mean big bucks for their districts. The soft-drink companies are eager to pay schools thousands of dollars for the right to sell their products on campus. It's an unfortunate reality that our underfunded schools have to find alternative sources of revenue. Lawmakers afraid to find adequate school funding shouldn't get any bright ideas about selling exclusive sponsorship rights as a way to replace tax dollars.

Still, there's no great harm in letting teens buy a soft drink for lunch. The real shame is that our school districts feel the need to make such compromises to generate revenue that should be coming from Tallahassee. When the financial glass is less than half-full, schools can't be blamed for accepting a drink wherever they can find one.