School Not Sweet on Junk Food

Times Staff Writer

In the battle to beat addiction to soft drinks and snack foods on Ventura County campuses, students at Balboa Middle School are among the latest to be asked to quit cold turkey. Youngsters at the Ventura campus returned from winter break to a ban on candy, doughnut and soda sales at the cafeteria’s vending machines and snack bar.

The move was meant to help the Ventura Unified School District meet a statewide mandate to eliminate fatty foods and sugary drinks from elementary and middle schools by year’s end.

At a time when more than a quarter of California’s public schoolchildren are overweight and nearly 40% are out of shape, it is also part of a larger campaign to help students develop healthier eating habits that will last a lifetime.


“We are facing an obesity epidemic; we are facing a diabetes epidemic; and we haven’t been doing a good service to our kids,” said Sandy VanHouten, director of child nutrition services for the Ventura district. “We just feel that we can’t represent the best interests of student health if we are selling them things that aren’t healthy.”

The junk food ban already was in force at Ventura’s three other middle schools. But for many of the 1,200 students at Balboa, the city’s largest middle school, that didn’t make their new sugar-free reality any easier to swallow.

“I think it’s kind of dumb,” said 13-year-old Melanie Ide, standing in a long lunch line recently with fellow eighth-grader Christian O’Leary. “Why should they take it away? We are old enough to make our own decisions.”

School district officials across California say the issue isn’t whether students are old enough to make choices, but whether they are being given good choices -- and the tools to make those choices -- to begin with.

To that end, school districts have been pumping up the nutritional value of items offered in cafeterias and snack bars. They also have been boosting educational efforts to drive home the idea that there is more to a balanced meal than a bag of chips and a Dr Pepper.

Part of that push has been spurred by legislation that will ban the sale of junk food and sodas on elementary campuses, and limit the sale of carbonated drinks at middle schools by the end of the year. The legislation, proposed by state Sen. Martha Escutia (D-Whittier) and signed into law in 2001, also mandates that foods sold at elementary and middle schools meet certain nutritional requirements.


Even before the legislation came to pass, several California school districts had been waging their own junk food wars.

The Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education voted last year to outlaw soda sales at all schools, effective January 2004. The Oakland Unified School District enacted a similar policy in 2001.

In Orange County, Capistrano Unified and neighboring Newport-Mesa Unified began this academic year by eliminating soda pop and unhealthy snacks from school grounds.

In Ventura County, school leaders have been making similar inroads.

The Oxnard Elementary School District outlawed soft drinks and candy at its middle school campuses years ago. And in Thousand Oaks, the Conejo Valley Unified School District followed a ban last year on middle school candy sales with a prohibition earlier this month against soft drink sales during school hours.

Middle school students returned from winter break to find that the soda machines had been put on timers so that they now only work after hours and on weekends. Students still have available to them during school hours vending machines that dispense water, juices and sugar-free beverages.

Joe Cook, who is in charge of student nutrition for the Conejo Valley district, said he has even reduced the number of soda machines at the district’s high schools, all in an effort to stem the sugar-loaded tide.


“In reality, the kids at the high school level can just leave campus, so we might not have much impact on them,” Cook said. “But at the elementary and middle school age groups, we have time to model them, we have time to give them good food experiences, and we hope that has an impact years from now.”

For many schools, however, the move toward healthier nutrition habits comes at a price. Schools rely on income from soda and snack food sales to fund everything from field trips to assemblies. And in this era of budget cuts, some view those sales as a sure way to provide a cash infusion.

It was those concerns that prompted the Pleasant Valley School District in Camarillo to hold off on removing soda machines from middle school campuses.

The district formed a Healthy Foods Committee earlier this academic year that has taken several steps toward curbing junk food intake, such as limiting the hours soft drinks are available. But the panel decided that until the new state law goes into effect next year, soda should be allowed at both of the intermediate schools.

Jan Maez, the district’s chief business official, estimates that each school stands to lose more than $5,000 a year in soda sales when the tap finally runs dry. And while the new law promises increased funding to schools that develop healthier revenue sources, Maez is doubtful that the money will materialize in these tough budget times.

“I think our parent population would absolutely support healthier food choices,” Maez said. “But they are also very cognizant of how difficult it is to raise funds and how their kids come home each day after enjoying the types of activities these funds support.”


That is the same reason Balboa Middle School took so long to come around.

While junk food sales were outlawed at Ventura’s three other middle schools at the start of the school year, officials at the east Ventura campus worried about the loss of income and delayed the move for several months.

Even now, with soda sales eliminated in the cafeteria, there are still some vending machines on campus that dispense soda. But those machines, which generate money for activities and supplies, are being locked down during lunch and nutrition breaks as part of the effort to curb soda intake.

Vice Principal Lane Jackson said the machines were the most popular on campus, bringing in as much as $3,500 a year to the school. Jackson said he now expects to lose half that revenue.

“I understand where they are coming from,” said Jackson of those who want soft drinks to disappear altogether. “But it’s not banned from school. Kids are still allowed to bring it onto campus, we’re just banned from selling it to them. At some point I think you’ve really got to question what good we are doing.”