A War on Soda and Candies in Schools

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Junk-food junkies beware: State Sen. Martha Escutia is on a mission to rid California public schools of sodas, candy bars and other sweet snacks.

The lawmaker informed her colleagues last week that she is determined to push for legislation that would significantly restrict the types of foods and drinks sold in public schools--a move that sent the snack and soda industry into a frenzy.

Originally, Escutia (D-Whittier) wanted limits on fatty, sugary foods sold in elementary and middle schools by 2004. But after her so-called junk food bill, SB 19, appeared headed for the governmental trash bin, the senator agreed to water down her legislation.

On Tuesday, the Assembly Health Committee approved a version that would ban the sale of all junk food and sodas at elementary schools, while placing limits on the sale of carbonated drinks at middle schools. The bill is scheduled for a hearing Wednesday in the Assembly Education Committee.

"We continue to feel that the health of our young people is at risk because of the eating environment at our schools," Escutia said. "This might be a bill that takes a few years to get passed, but I'm very persistent. . . . I will remove junk foods from schools in the next four years."

It won't be easy. Escutia's list of opponents reads like a concessionaire's menu at a movie theater. Jelly Belly Candy, Hershey Foods, Pepsi-Cola, Ouaker Oats and others have lined up against the legislation. The chocolate industry hired a lobbyist to register a complaint against the bill, which would regulate foods sold in vending machines and snack bars and even in student bake sales.

Although Escutia anticipated that the snack food industry would fight the bill, she was dismayed to find that a number of school districts were also seeking its defeat. Some educators say the bill will cost their schools lucrative contracts with soda companies and candy distributors, which pay thousands of dollars each year for the right to sell their goods on campuses.

"It has nothing to do with health and it has everything to do with money," Escutia said.

According to estimates of a vending industry trade magazine, schools across the country generate more than $750 million in annual sales from snack and beverage machines. Recently, the Sweetwater Union High School District in Chula Vista signed an exclusive deal with Pepsi that is expected to bring at least $4.45 million to its 20 schools over the next 10 years--money that will help pay for library books, intramural sports and school-to-career programs.

"The state in the 1980s substantially reduced its support for student activities," said Jim Brown, superintendent of the Glendale Unified School District. As a result, he said, schools had to come up with creative ways to bring in cash. If state lawmakers want to impose restrictions, they should reimburse schools for their loss, said Brown, who estimates that the Glendale district collects "tens of thousands" of dollars each year from vending machine sales.

"That money would have to be made up some way," said Brown, whose district is on record opposing an earlier version of Escutia's bill.

School administrators also worry that restricting food sales in secondary schools will encourage more students to leave campus for lunch, undermining the nutritional goals and further reducing the money schools raise through their lunch programs.

"Although we believe the idea behind the bill is good," Brown said, "we would like to work with the senator to help shape it further."

So far, however, Escutia has been reluctant to compromise. For her, the issue is deeply personal. She has two young children, and she suffers from "borderline" diabetes.

"I'm changing my ways and I watch what my kids eat," Escutia said.

She said her push for good nutrition is further bolstered by a study that found the percentage of overweight children in the United States has doubled in the last 30 years, and 91% of children ages 6 to 11 are not eating the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables. Many experts believe that is at least partly due to an increased consumption of "convenience" foods, Escutia said.

"When you have this marketplace of junk and soda everywhere else, it undermines the good habits that parents are trying to instill," she said. "Frankly, schools should not make an unhealthy alliance in order to seek profit. That is not the purpose of a school."

Escutia began championing the bill more than two years ago. At first, the senator said, she was "laughed out of the Legislature." This year, however, the measure finally is receiving a full hearing.

In June, the Senate--on a 22-15 vote--passed a version of the legislation that called for limits on fat and sugar in elementary and middle-school food by 2004.

Under Escutia's original plan, no more than 35% of a meal's calories could be derived from fat and no more than 10% from saturated fat--requirements that exceed USDA standards.

The original bill also sought to limit the types of beverages that could be sold to pupils at middle schools to water, milk and 100% fruit juices--regardless of the time of day. In addition, the legislation called for restrictions on snack foods--such as candy bars and chips--sold by students to raise funds for athletics, dances and other extracurricular activities.

But after the Assembly's Health Committee appeared reluctant to go along with the provisions, Escutia agreed to amend her legislation to place the restrictions mostly on elementary schools. The only change for middle schools would be a ban on soda sales until after lunch.

If the bill survives the hearing in the Assembly's Education Committee, it will move on to the Senate Appropriations Committee for more debate.

"I had to water it down a little to keep the bad water--which is soda--out of the schools," Escutia said. "I made it very clear that this is the first step in a multiyear approach.

"I have, hopefully, four more years in the Senate," she said, "and my goal is to leave with the schools being free of junk food."

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