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Soda pop contracts could mean millions for schools, study finds:

A Portland-based group says the money gained isn't worth the health risks when childhood obesity is a problem nationwide

The Oregonian
By Aimee Green
Issue: 4/15/05

An anti-soda-pop group is shining a light on the little-known world of school soda and drink contracts, which could net a few of Oregon's largest school districts millions of dollars over the course of a decade.

The nonprofit organization Community Health Partnership issued a study Thursday detailing the contracts in 22 districts that represent roughly half of Oregon's student population.

Because school districts are not required to report the contents of their contracts to the Oregon Department of Education or the federal government, the partnership's study could represent the largest publicly accessible collection of such data in Oregon.

The study concludes that money schools receive from beverage companies in return for exclusive rights to sell and advertise their products doesn't appear to be worth the health consequences. A key concern of the partnership is the nation's growing problem with childhood obesity.

But leaders in metro-area school districts contacted by The Oregonian Thursday said they hadn't had time to analyze the study's data. They defended the contracts as a necessary funding source, and some said they created rules to oversee the sale of soda.

The study is likely to raise questions from beverage giants such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi. Representatives from the Oregon Soft Drink Association couldn't be reached for comment Thursday.

According to the study: School districts receive larger commissions for selling soda, compared with juice and water. Portland Public Schools receives 50 percent of the price of each 20-ounce soda sold; 35 percent of the price of each 12-ounce soda sold and 30 percent of the price of juice and water sold. The partnership contends that such contracts give schools incentive to push for the sale of large bottles of soda pop. Some contracts grant schools extra perks, such as scholarship money that grows with every case of drinks schools sell. Beaverton and North Clackamas get 40 cents for scholarships for every case sold. Oregon's biggest school districts can make millions of dollars over the life of a contract. On average, contracts last nine years. Portland has been promised $2.2 million, Beaverton $2 million, Salem-Keizer $1.55 million and Hillsboro $1.3 million — in addition to the proceeds the districts will receive from sales.

Community Health Partnership, which is based in Portland, is a group of doctors, nurses, public health officials and healthy-lifestyle advocates who hope to improve the health of Oregonians through public health policy. The group lobbied hard for the passage of bills that oppose junk food in schools appear to be foundering in the Oregon Legislature this session.

The partnership's beverage-contract study, which was conducted by attorneys Nicola Pinson, and Katie Gaetjens, sought copies of contracts from 25 Oregon school districts from May to October 2004. Twelve districts had signed contracts covering all schools in their districts; 10 districts had individual schools that signed individual contracts; and three districts didn't have any contracts.

Although contracts may bring millions of dollars to a handful of districts, over the life of the contract the money becomes less significant, said Mary Lou Hennrich executive director of the partnership. On average, the study concluded that districts with beverage contracts make between $12 and $24 per student per year, the study concluded.

"People say we need these contracts because they bring in a lot of money," Hennrich said. "Well, it's not a lot of money."

Betsy Biller, assistant superintendent in Hillsboro, said she's certain the district never would have built a $1 million all-weather turf field that's shared by Glencoe and Hillsboro high schools without a contract with Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola footed the bill.

What's more, selling soda — as well as juice and water — allows the school district to tap into cash that might otherwise go to convenience stores.

"Instead of 7-Eleven getting the profits, our schools are able to get the profits," Biller said.

In Portland, former school board member Sue Hagmeier said she begrudgingly approved an exclusive contract with Coca-Cola in 2001 because she believed the cash-strapped school system had no choice.

"We may not have liked it, but we just don't have the support we need to run school programs," Hagmeier said. "That's one of the evils of being poor."

Even so, Hagmeier said school board members didn't sell out. They made sure to restrict advertising and the sale of soda pop to only older students, Hagmeier said. Allowing Coca-Cola to sell soda pop to students at all levels surely would have generated more money, Hagmeier said.

To view the study visit: www.communityhealthpartnership.org.

Aimee Green:503-294-5969; aimeegreen@news.oregonian.com

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