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Vending machines under microscope amid concerns

Educators and nutrition experts have long debated whether schools should earn money from lucrative contracts with soft drink companies.

Their sugar- and caffeine-laden products are popular with teens even if they are not the healthiest choices.

In Citrus the issue surfaced again recently as the School Board prepared to approve the annual high school requests that allow the machines to stay on all day. Board member Pat Deutschman raised a question about whether, in the current atmosphere of worrying about student health, the vending machine philosophy should be discussed.

No one moved to do that, but school superintendent David Hickey said he is looking at the vending machines that provide soft drinks, juices and water in the county's three high schools anyway.

The issue is not simple. Those machines provide big money to the high schools.

At Citrus High, the five-year contract with Coca-Cola will bring in an estimated $88,000 in benefits ranging from scoreboards to promotional items to scholarships. The school sells about $500 worth of drinks a month from vending machines, according to principal Mike Mullen.

The numbers are higher at Crystal River High School, where the current three-year Coke contract will provide an estimated $138,950 in benefits to the school. In addition to $33,000 in scoreboards, the contract provides commissions from the approximately $1,200 in vending machine sales each month and a $5,000 upfront payment to the school each year.

The money pays for a wide variety of items ranging from yearbooks, caps and gowns and pictures for students who cannot otherwise afford them, to homecoming activities. The dollars pay for diplomas and covers and provide money for the Relay for Life.

The money also bought $9,000 worth of utility vehicles used on the campus, a $3,600 grill and $8,000 worth of picnic tables and umbrellas.

Still, Steve Myers, Crystal River High principal, said he would not be opposed if some restrictions needed to be in place on the machines to cut down on the sugar-laden alternatives. He has organized a group at his school, led by his health academy coordinator, Judy Powell, that is examining adding vending machines offering healthy snack alternatives.

"We want healthy kids here," he said.

At Citrus High, water is a top seller, Mullen said. Part of that could be because water is allowed in classrooms, but soft drinks are not. In fact, water is more and more a fact of life in schools because research has shown that children learn better when they are properly hydrated.

The same is true of athletes, and Mullen said they do much better on the practice field after school if they have kept hydrated during the school day.

"I think kids are smarter than we may give them credit for," Mullen said. They might make good food choices if healthy items are offered.

Still, Mullen said the messages sent to students and to educators are mixed. While a state task force on obesity is preparing recommendations to increase the amount of physical education students will need to take, the Legislature last year approved new graduation requirements that dropped physical education altogether for some students.

And then there is the battle against the culture.

"A lot of kids don't get off the couch once they get home," Mullen said. "It's a fast-food generation, and working parents just aren't cooking good, balanced meals."

At Lecanto High, the three-year Coke contract is expected to bring in $144,000, according to principal Kelly Tyler. Without that money, the school would struggle to find another way to pay for a wide variety of items, from scoreboards to scholarships, he said.

He said that it might send a mixed message to students.

"It's very difficult for us to legislate issues like this," Tyler said. "Are we sending a mixed message, well maybe, but it's the same mixed message society is sending . . . You have a choice."