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Students Learn to Dispense With Sodas

Times Staff Writer

Nibbling at the ice cream cone he said was his lunch, eyes fixed longingly on the campus vending machine where the Pepsi used to be, Yan Popkov revealed himself to be an unhappy young man.

“I hate it!” the 14-year-old Hollywood High freshman said of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s month-old ban on sugary sodas. “Soda is basically the only thing I drink. It’s the only reason I’m up.”

Nearby in the 3,100-student high school’s bustling lunch court, sophomore Hakob Krishchyan expressed a different view.

“It’s OK with me,” said the 16-year-old, surveying the vending machine offerings of Snapple and Switch fruit drinks and Crystal Geyser bottled water. “I like juice.”

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Nearly 750,000 students at more than 700 campuses in the nation’s second-largest school district are adjusting to life without Coke, Sprite or Mr. Pibb -- at least during school hours.

Students can still bring soft drinks from home. Or they can zip off campus at lunchtime -- permitted at some high schools -- to score a Slurpee or a Red Bull.

Los Angeles and California -- along with Texas and New York City -- are at the forefront of a national movement to provide healthier fare for students. The effort is fueled by concerns over an alarming increase in childhood obesity and accompanying health risks such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

Oakland and San Francisco also have bans in place, and an anti-soda policy will take effect July 1 at all California public elementary and middle schools. At that same time, Los Angeles schools will be tightening their junk food policies, restricting fatty items such as candy and chips.

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At L.A. schools, the sodas had vanished from vending machines and student stores by the time youngsters returned from winter break, replaced gradually with drinks that met new district guidelines.

Fruit-based drinks containing at least 50% juice and no added sweeteners are acceptable, as are drinking water and vitamin waters that contain no more than 42 grams of added sweetener per 20-ounce serving. Milk, chocolate milk, soy milk, rice milk and “similar dairy or nondairy” products also are acceptable, as are electrolyte replacement beverages such as Gatorade.

Caffeinated drinks -- coffee, tea and chai -- and those with herbal or some other supplements -- are forbidden.

Getting ready for the Jan. 1 start of the soda ban, Los Angeles schools scrambled to sign new contracts for healthier alternatives with vendors -- including Pepsi and Coca-Cola.

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But principals at some cash-strapped schools said they were worried about a decline in the vending machine revenue that helps pay for athletic programs and some other student activities.

A spot check found mixed financial results. At Columbus Middle School in Canoga Park, for example, business at the vending machines was nearly as brisk as ever as students took quickly to the new offerings. But at some high schools, revenue appeared to be down by 30% to 50%, although some principals expected sales to bounce back.

Los Angeles Unified isn’t stopping at soft drinks. Starting July 1, it will begin enforcing strict nutritional standards on other fare sold in student stores, vending machines and at school-hours fundraisers. (Cafeterias are regulated by separate federal guidelines.) No more than 35% of calories can come from fat, for example, and portion sizes of such goodies as muffins and French fries will be sharply cut back.

The prospect of that, on top of the soda ban, had Hollywood High abuzz with teenage angst.

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“Oh, no!” groaned April Avington, 14, a freshman in the school’s Performing Arts Magnet Center. “That’s not cool. We need our sugar.”

Classmate Daronn Gooden, also 14, thought he saw an opportunity. “I will bring sodas and candy to school and sell them underground,” he said, laughing.

In the lunch area, a vending machine selling healthy drinks stood next to one dispensing candy and cookies. The candy machine was doing a brisk business, while many students ignored its companion offering various flavors of canned Snapple for $1.25 and Switch drinks for just 50 cents (an introductory special). Another machine offered Gatorade, also for $1.25.

“That’s really expensive. We can’t really afford that,” said sophomore Eduardo Elizarraras, 17. “I would like to buy it, but look at the price.”

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Pepsi used to be sold in machines for $1 a bottle or 75 cents a can. The machines now offer some water and juices for $1.

Brian Reyes, 17, a junior, said he was thinking of petitioning the school board to bring the sodas back.

“Students do better at school if they are comfortable,” Reyes said. “And soda makes a lot of us comfortable. We are used to it, and it is disturbing” not to have it.

In the school’s leadership class, senior Lesslie Rodriguez, 18, said she was upset because the restrictions could cut into revenue for student government and other activities. Besides, she said, seniors with good grades are allowed off campus for lunch “and we can buy anything we want then. So the school loses.”

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But some students, including junior Tigran Danielyan, 18, approve of the ban.

“I think it will help students be healthier,” he said. “I was drinking sodas before, but now I like Gatorade. It’s more natural.”

School board member Marlene Canter, a driving force behind the restrictions on soda and junk food, said she expected students to make the adjustment and be healthier for it.

She pointed to Monroe and Venice high schools, two district campuses that earlier had banned sales of soda and junk food on their own.

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At Venice High, revenue initially dipped but then revived. Sales there in April 2003 were $7,054, or $1,190 less than the previous April, before the restrictions. But the next month, sales bounced back to $7,382, up from the previous May’s $6,163. And there was a noticeable change in the school culture.

“You used to see these big football players walking around with sodas. Now you see them carrying water bottles, and it make you see that you can really make a difference in helping these kids lead healthier lives,” Canter said.

Monroe High had a similar experience. The school coaxed sales back up nearly to pre-ban levels by letting students sample new foods and drinks for free at first.

“Our kids really have adapted well, and that makes me feel good,” Monroe Principal Gregory Vallone said.

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San Francisco Unified, which banned sodas beginning in the fall of 2002 and junk food starting this school year, found that students protested at first but soon started buying the healthier fare.

“Our sales are up beyond what they were” before the bans at Aptos Middle School, the first in the district to make the switch, according to district spokesman Roqua Montez.

Hollywood High leaders are optimistic.

“Kids are complaining now,” said Carmelita Ramos, business manager, estimating that sales were down as much as 50%. But, she said, after some experimenting with pricing and variety, “we’ll find that students usually buy whatever we have.”

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“It’s hard now, but it will get better,” Ramos said.

At Cleveland High in Reseda, however, Principal Allan Weiner is worried because sales revenue is off by about one-third.

“We want our kids to be healthy but, unless we find a way to compensate, we may have to consider dropping some of our athletic programs,” Weiner said.

Soft drink companies say forbidding soda sales won’t do much beyond depriving schools of revenue. Inactivity, not sugar, is the main culprit in America’s soaring obesity rates, they say.

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Bob Achermann, executive director of the California Nevada Soft Drink Assn., said most vendors have always offered healthier alternatives to sodas.

“Kids can make that judgment for themselves, especially in high school,” he said.

But, in taking on Dr Pepper and Doritos, schools are finding they have powerful allies. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in a national survey last year, found that 91% of parents favored vending machine restrictions.

Scott Folsom, father of an eighth-grader at Walter Reed Middle School in North Hollywood, acknowledged that his daughter and her friends were not happy about the soda ban.

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“She’d rather drink the junky stuff,” said Folsom, who strongly supports the ban. “The kids’ favorite response to anything is, ‘It’s not fair.’

“But as an adult and a parent, I have absolutely no problem imposing my will on this issue. It’s much too important not to.”


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