Let Them Drink Juice

Greg Critser writes about the politics of health for Harper's, Worth and USA Today. His book on the modern obesity epidemic will be published by Houghton Mifflin in 2002

Last week brought one of the most important--and surprising--victories ever for advocates of more healthful food in California's public schools. The victory came in the form of the state Senate's approval of SB19, authored by Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier) and championed by a number of the state's leading public health and nutrition experts. The bill was spurred by the nation's growing awareness of childhood obesity, and it mandates what many initially believed was an unobtainable goal: a complete ban on the campus sales of carbonated soft drinks. It also requires a substantial reduction in fat and added sugar content in school snack foods.

Now, however, the real work begins. SB19 will almost certainly be carved up in the Assembly (its original limits on portion sizes were gutted from the Senate bill, as was almost half of the proposed law's first-year funding). Which means that what happens at the local level is perhaps more important.

Many nutrition experts and public health advocates, buttressed by a recent study by the California Endowment, have concluded that the only meaningful and practical nutritional reforms are those that come from the ground up--from district food-service directors, from principals or from students, themselves. The role model is the Sacramento School District, which last year banned the sales of all soft drinks. Food service directors in the Oakland and Pasadena school districts are also pursuing this strategy.

But, as anyone who has traversed its halls can tell you, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is not Sacramento--nor is it unified, especially when it comes to nutritional issues. Its food-service director, Orlando Griego, has provided only tepid support for the Escutia bill, worrying that the bill's portion and fat restrictions would force him to sell "pizzas that kids won't eat, and won't buy." One of his chief nutrition directors agrees, arguing that such a change would come only with great struggle. As she sees it, Pizza Hut, the district's main outside pizza supplier, doesn't want to "turn kids off to the brand" by selling smaller or less fatty pizzas on campus. "Their response has always been something like: 'That could turn them off to buying Pizza Hut pizza when they are off-campus."' In the LAUSD, wait and see remains the motto in all things pizza. And, apparently, in all things soda. Consider the experience of students at Venice High, where the school's perennial soft-drink contract with the Coca-Cola Bottling Company recently came up for renegotiation. Using their health and nutrition class as an base from which to organize, students put together an alternative proposal to Coke's.

It was a classic piece of ground-up activism. Choosing an independent vendor, unbeholden to any entity that manufactures soda, students proposed an alternative contract. Its terms: Unlike Coca-Cola LA, the students' vendor would add a wider variety of 100% fruit juice offerings. It offered these at a lower price as well. The alternative contract ponied up smaller--and healthier--portion sizes (18 ounces vs. 20 ounces), lower prices ( $.75 vs. $1.00) for all vended juice and soft drinks, and a replacement of soft-drink advertising with ads for 100% juice.

The student proposal was even more surprising in its economic perks. As with Coke, it provided for yearly "bonus" payments, which many schools have come to rely on for after-school sports programs. The independent supplier offered $6,000 a year. Coke: $3000. The school would retain 36% of gross sales; in the Coke deal the school had to agree to a lower profit margin on juice sales.

Then came the point of dispute. The students' vendor, unlike Coke, ponied up no free product (to be sold by the school to raise funds at school events), which the students and their allies saw as a plus. "The students' proposal would have taken us out of the business of directly promoting Coke consumption," says Jackie Domac, the school's health and nutrition instructor.

But to the school's principal, Jan Davis, that was a negative. "We needed the flexibility of being able to sell Coke's free product, which is what made their offer slightly better in pure bonus dollars [ by approximately $2,000]," says Davis. "And, to be frank, they were a known quantity. We were more comfortable with Coke."

One shouldn't read too much into that remark. LAUSD's food-service department --from cafeteria managers to district executives--are hard-working, dedicated souls who, like all school officials these days, come under constant and conflicting demands from their constituents. Principals like Davis scramble to support underfunded extracurricular activities. And so the old contracts get renewed.

Yet in matters fast food, the LAUSD has more muscle than it realizes. It comes in the form of purchasing power. Consider that the district purchases about 320,000 pizzas a year from Pizza Hut alone. These pizzas are delivered from local Pizza Hut franchisees located near the schools. They are enormously popular for three reasons: They are nearly twice the size (10.8 vs. 5.8 oz.) of cafeteria pizzas, they contain lots more fat, and, perhaps most important, they are freshly baked. For them the LAUSD shells out approximately $500,000 a year to Pizza Hut alone.

While certainly not enough money to change the minds at Pizza Hut headquarters, it's clearly enough to get the attention of local franchisees and their commission-driven regional managers. The district should use that economic clout to force them to shrink portion size and fat content. This it could do while still maintaining the "magnet" of a branded, freshly baked food. It should do the same with its other fast-food vendors. The chance to do so is imminent. On June 30, the contract with Pizza Hut is up for renegotiation.

Yet again, though, it looks like the district will miss an opportunity for change. As one staff member explains, "We're still waiting to see what happens with SB 19."

They shouldn't. For inspiration the LAUSD need only tap into its own more confident past. Just a few years ago the district successfully used its purchasing power to force providers of cafeteria food to reduce fat and added sugars. The money mattered, and so did policy. The district had set the stage for that victory in 1989 by writing tougher nutritional standards for all its cafeteria-food suppliers. The standards were so tough, boasts food-service director Griego, "that the saying in the industry is 'if you can sell to LAUSD, you can sell to anyone."'

It's time to turn that same tough-mindedness to the new fast food contracts. The clock is ticking.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World