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Nutritionists seek soda ban in Pa. schools

By MARTHA RAFFAELE, Associated Press Writer
Issue: 3/26/05

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - When the Philadelphia School District banned the sale of carbonated soft drinks in city schools last year, a nonprofit nutrition advocacy group considered the decision a sweet victory for its activists.

Since then, the Philadelphia-based Food Trust has been working to build statewide momentum for its cause. With funding from the state Agriculture Department, it has developed a "Healthy Beverage Toolkit" - a primer on how other communities can marshal support for similar policies.

"We figured that if Philadelphia could do it, then it's a slam-dunk that anybody throughout the state can do it," said R. Duane Perry, the group's executive director. "Now is the right time."

The Food Trust and other school-nutrition advocates view the presence of soft drinks in schools as a key contributor to the childhood obesity epidemic. A state Health Department survey last year found that while 72 percent of Pennsylvania high schools with vending machines offer bottled water, carbonated drinks and sugary sports drinks were present in 60 percent of those high schools.

By contrast, milk was present in only 20 to 25 percent of high schools with vending machines, depending on the variety - chocolate, whole, lowfat or skim. The trust considers milk, 100 percent fruit juice and water to be healthy beverages.

In Philadelphia, the group was galvanized when the district began considering bids for an exclusive beverage contract in February 2003, three years after the school board rejected a 10-year, $43 million contract with Coca-Cola Bottling Co.

The organization formed a task force called the Philadelphia Coalition for Healthy Children, whose members aired their concerns at public meetings. The trust bolstered its argument with a poll that found nine out of 10 parents in the district wanted only healthy beverages in schools.

The idea eventually garnered the support of schools chief Paul Vallas, who called on the district's School Reform Commission to enact the soda ban.

"His attitude was and has been that a few dollars here and there is not worth it when it comes to our children's health," Perry said.

It's not easy for school districts to take that stance, considering the financial rewards such contracts promise, said Cheryl Cook, the agriculture department's deputy secretary for marketing and economic development.

"The soda companies may be providing a scoreboard or other things that come along with it. It's hard to talk folks into taking that step (of banning soft drinks)," she said. "But I really think that public opinion is on the side of what the Philadelphia schools have done."

The idea has also gained favor in the state Legislature, where Rep. Jess Stairs, chairman of the House Education Committee, has introduced a package of bills designed to encourage better nutrition and more exercise for schoolchildren. One measure would require schools to sell only healthy drinks during school hours, and limit serving sizes to 12 ounces.

But the soft-drink industry also wants its voice to be heard in the debate. During a recent committee hearing on Stairs' bills, a dietitian who testified on behalf of the Pennsylvania Soft Drink Association suggested that an outright ban on soda was extreme.

University of Pittsburgh Medical Center dietitian Leslie Bonci said children should be educated on balancing their caloric intake - even allowing for the occasional soda if they choose.

"Children and adolescents do not want to be told what to do, but instead need to be educated on how to make appropriate choices in terms of food, eating habits and physical activity," she said.

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