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Cabinet okays soda sales deal at schools

Over the protests of nutrionists, the vote gives school districts the ability to allow all-day soda sales in high schools.

Brushing off worries that teenagers will rot their teeth and get fat chugging soda pop all day, Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Cabinet voted Thursday to expand soft drink sales in high schools.

The 6-1 vote gives local school districts the go-ahead to allow soda sales all day long. For months, nutritionists urged Cabinet members to keep a state rule that limits soda sales in high schools to one hour after lunch. The policy does not apply to middle or elementary schools.

In Pinellas, all-day soda sales could begin in high schools this semester. Hernando, Citrus, Pasco and Hillsborough counties are expected to revisit soda sales policies in the coming months, school district officials said.

The Cabinet decision is a boon to soft drink companies, which get a chance to build brand preference among high schoolers. For schools, the soda sales mean extra cash: Soft-drink companies pay big bucks for exclusive rights to sell their brands in schools. Schools use the money for everything from athletic equipment to classroom materials.

To bolster their case, opponents carried jars of sugar to the Capitol to show how much kids ingest in a single Coca-Cola. They released alarming studies that said today's kids are eschewing milk and downing soda by the gallon, endangering healthy bones. They enlisted school cafeteria chiefs, who warned that giving students easy access to soda sets a bad example in a nation that already has abysmal eating habits.

But in the end, only one Cabinet member _ Insurance Commissioner Bill Nelson _ sided with them. Bush and the rest of the Cabinet said it is too heavy-handed for the state to dictate when a high school student can drink a pop. Where would such micromanaging stop, Bush asked?

"'You can go to a high school cafeteria and all the major food groups are there: pizza, hamburgers and french fries," Bush said, wondering aloud whether the state should be monitoring students' food intake.

Some schools, the governor later pointed out, allow fast-food franchises on campus.

Agriculture Commissioner Bob Crawford, the state's chief pitchman for Florida citrus, added a special caveat to the new rule: School vending machines must offer 100 percent juice alongside sodas.

The Florida Citrus Commission, which looks out for the citrus industry, came to the Capitol Thursday to speak against the expanded soda sales. But orange juice giant Minute Maid came to support the idea.

After a Minute Maid spokeswoman spoke in favor of the expanded soda sales, Secretary of State Katherine Harris pointed out a relevant fact, just in case the crowd was confused: Minute Maid, she said, is owned by Coca-Cola.

Even if they decide to sell sodas all day, Florida schools still must comply with a federal rule that says schools can't allow foods of "minimal nutritional value" to compete with school lunches. That means vending machines can't be inside school cafeterias. If they are, they'll have to be turned off during lunch.

How will the new rule affect Tampa Bay schools?

Pinellas County led the charge to repeal the soda restrictions, saying schools need the money. The district is wasting no time cashing in: Pinellas schools spokesman Ron Stone said the School Board could take up the issue as early as next week.

In Pasco County, where the school district has an exclusive sales contract with Pepsi, spokesman Chip Wichmanowski said the Cabinet's decision "obviously opens up a few opportunities. "

"But, to date, our board has been of the opinion that they don't want to sell all day long," Wichmanowski said.

Hernando County signed a multiyear, million-dollar contract for Coca-Cola sales in high schools this year, said Vincent Benedict, executive director for district finances.

Benedict said he will recommend that the School Board revisit its policy, because allowing soda sales all day would increase sales and bring in more money.

In Citrus County, high schools have each negotiated individual contracts with Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Citrus County Schools official Bill Humbaugh said high school principals will meet to decide whether to ask the board to expand soda sales.

Hillsborough hasn't yet signed contracts with soft drink companies for soda sales, said district spokesman Mark Hart.

"'Now we're going to have to take it before the board and discuss which way we want to go with it," Hart said.