At lunchtime, the blue machines draw soda-seeking teenagers like ants to sugar. Students feed dollar bills into the lit bellies of PepsiCo refrigerators and wait for the sound.
Throttle, clunk. Sierra Mist. Throttle, clunk. Pepsi. Throttle, clunk. Mountain Dew. Throttle, clunk. Orange Slice.
"It's good to have soda," said a backpacked and blue-eyed Ryan Hughes, 16, as he crowded around the machines with three of his River Ridge High School buddies just before math class.
"It gives our school money."
Precisely, say the principals who know that on-campus soda sales generate dollars for cash-strapped schools to use as they wish.
Last summer, the Pasco County School Board told high schools to decide for themselves whether to do away with a morning ban on soda machine sales. Six of nine school advisory councils, including River Ridge's, decided to open the machines up to students round the clock. One, Land O'Lakes High, hasn't voted yet.
"It's a true dilemma for us," said Tammy Rabon, principal at River Ridge, where vending sales last year pulled in an extra $58,882, more than any other school. "It's a chunk of change and the (school advisory council) was really concerned that if we lost that revenue, we'd have to make other, harder decisions."
Though Rabon said she voted in favor of keeping restricted hours, she loves the flexibility the vending dollars provide. She can use the funds for awards banquets, student incentives and other extras that aren't covered under the regular school budget.
Only Pasco and Gulf high schools chose to keep the hours restricted.
"Finances didn't even come into play," Pasco High principal Pat Reedy said of the school advisory council's decision-making process. Concerns for student nutrition were more of a priority.
"We're here for more than just revenues," he said.
Fight against carbonated drinks
But while most Pasco County schools are loosening controls on carbonated beverage consumption, state and national leaders are stepping up pressure for schools to do away with sales of all innutritious foods and beverages.
+ The American Academy of Pediatrics on Jan. 5 issued a statement calling on schools to eliminate all soft drink sales and encouraging local pediatricians to talk to their school boards about the matter.
+ In Florida, the Governor's Task Force on the Obesity Epidemic a few days later released 21 draft recommendations to the governor to help encourage more healthful living. Eleven of them deal with schools.
Though none suggest vending sales be eliminated outright, one encourages schools to seek partnerships that could provide funding opportunities typically filled by vending sales. Along with that, there's a recommendation that schools apply federal dietary guidelines to their vending and a la carte selections.
+ Legislators are considering several bills that would address health and nutrition behaviors in schools, including one by Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami Beach, that would impose up to $500 fines on schools that sell innutritious foods or beverages to students during certain hours.
+ Texas, Arkansas and California each have imposed laws limiting student access to sodas and candy in school. And 19 states besides Florida are considering similar legislation.
Sandra Woodruff, president of the Florida Dietetic Association, which has testified before the Governor's Task Force, said most signs say it's almost diet time for Florida's youth.
"I have a feeling, by the end of the legislative session, there are going to be some really serious changes," Woodruff said, rebuffing the budgetary argument. "Yes, these beverages may be generating revenues, but at what cost?"
Missing link to obesity
In Pasco County _ where the school district cut $10-million in staff and programs last year for budgetary reasons _ the heft of that question isn't exactly weighing in.
In its fifth year of its exclusive contract with PepsiCo, Pasco County already has garnered about $3.4-million from soda sales and other cash incentives the company provides the district _ not including the expected proceeds from the current school year.
Beverage sales have increased 26 percent from 43,337 cases the first year to 54,668 in 2002-03.
In return for being the only beverage distributor in the district, PepsiCo hands over about $200,000 to the district up front at the start of each contract year, plus more than $50,000 for scholarships.
It means Mitchell High students had access to an expansive, in-depth writing workshop this year. Wesley Chapel High could help supplement the cost of teacher supplies. Ridgewood High purchased additional test prep programs.
And it isn't money the district is ready to part with, believes Chip Wichmanowski _ manager of the PepsiCo contract for the school district and who has affectionately earned the nickname of "PepsiOne."
"We're doing what the law says we can do and that's the bottom line. My job is to make money for the school system," Wichmanowski said.
He points out that grade-schoolers aren't toting Mountain Dews to class: Elementary-aged students can't access Pepsi machines until after school. Middle school accessibility is limited to noncarbonated beverages. Only high school students _ kids already in control of many of their own decisions _ have this option.
"How bad is this? I don't know," he said. "I don't know if a soda a day contributes to obesity. We need to be careful what we're doing, but I don't think we have a problem."
About a quarter of Florida's high schoolers consider themselves obese, according to 2002 state figures. And the tendency toward tubbiness only increases from there: 57 percent of Florida's adults are overweight, a 63 percent increase since 1986.
According to a 1998 report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, as teens doubled or tripled their consumption of soft drinks in a 20-year span, they cut their consumption of milk by more than 40 percent.
Six of the seven best-selling soft drinks in the United States are caffeinated, according to a 2003 report by Beverage Digest. And health officials are quick to note that caffeine intake can increase the risk of osteoporosis.
Despite those statistics and the increased warnings from health experts, one sticking point for money-needy school officials is that there never has been a study directly linking childhood obesity to soft drinks.
"Why are we blaming the vending machine business in schools for contributing to obesity?" asked Chuck Rushe, now the chief financial officer of the Pasco school district and one of two candidates in the upcoming race for superintendent.
Indignant over the proposed bans on the legislative horizon, Rushe offered his own suggestion to obesity worriers: "Why not ban them in the stores, too?"
In November 2003, about the same time that many high schools moved to round-the-clock accessibility, Pasco schools' vending machine sales were up 235 cases over November a year ago.
State Rep. Heather Fiorentino, R-New Port Richey, said she's less convinced the financial benefits to schools outweigh the responsibility schools have to model good health behaviors.
Fiorentino is challenging Rushe in the superintendent's race.
"You have to look at the dollar _ it's important, but it's not as important as the children."
Fiorentino said she would be looking closely at the draft legislation regarding school vending sales in the coming session.
When the Pasco County School Board, after much discussion, voted to defer to local schools on vending machine hours, it also agreed in writing that if schools decide to sell sodas during the day, "principals will ensure that the number of carbonated machines on the campus is in proportion to the current ratio of noncarbonated machines versus carbonated machines."
So, if a high school decides to add a carbonated machine on its campus, it should also add a machine that carries such noncarbonated Pepsi products as bottled water, juice drinks, juices, iced tea and pink lemonade.
"I sell as much of that as I do the carbonated," said Hudson High principal Greg Wright, who added two sports drink machines to the campus this year, bringing the total number of beverage machines to 11 _ four carbonated and seven noncarbonated.
It's a strategy Rick Kurtz, director of food and nutrition services for the district, believes might increase the opportunities for students to make healthier choices.
Fiorentino doesn't buy it.
"If I put a piece of cake in front of you and a bowl of fruit, which are you going to go for?" she said.
Dietary reality of students
Students during a recent River Ridge lunch period seemed to be overwhelmingly going for the less nutritious foods offered a la carte, despite a federally compliant hot meal offered that day. Crumpled chips bags and tall plastic soda bottles sprinkled the lunch tables.
In one corner, 16-year-olds Mitchell Tetzler and Elliot Sittig lingered over the ritual they called lunch. Each day, Sittig gets a chicken sandwich, potato chips and a juice. Tetzler eats his buddy's chips, gulps down a strawberry milk and buys a couple of chocolate cookies on the a la carte line. That lunch comes on top of a couple of sodas a day each.
Across the lunch room, a group of freshman and sophomore cheerleaders giggled when asked to talk about their meal selections.
Tiffany Pisarcik, 14: a chicken sandwich, chips and juice.
Gina Morelli, 15: chips and a bottled chocolate milkshake from the snack line.
Rebekah Tracht-Kader, 14: cheese and pepperoni pizza, chips and sports drink.
Samantha Donohue, 15: baked potato chips and a chocolate milkshake.
But Rushe said students of this age are charged with making their own decisions about what to consume. Although schools have become easy and unfair targets in the national obesity discussion, he maintained, the cure to the epidemic lies beyond the school yard.
"Take away the televisions," he said, "take away the computer games, take away the fences and let them go down to the ballfield and play ball."
_ Rebecca Catalanello covers education in Pasco County. She can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6241 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6241. Her e-mail address is rcatalanellosptimes.com.
After the Pasco County School Board voted to give local School Advisory Councils the right to decide whether to expand high school students' access to vending machines during school hours, almost all of them voted to allow all-day access. Here's the breakdown:
Gulf: before and after school
Hudson: all day
Land O'Lakes+: before 7 a.m. and after 2 p.m.
Mitchell: all day
Pasco: after 2:05 p.m. dismissal
Ridgewood: all day
River Ridge: all day
Wesley Chapel: all day
Zephyrhills: all day
+ Land O'Lakes' School Advisory Council has not yet voted on the issue.