For countless American children, breakfast or lunch drops out of a vending machine at school: a can of soda, perhaps, washing down a chocolate bar or a bag of potato chips.
Now, a growing number of states are striking back, trying to curb the rise in childhood obesity by placing strict limits on the sale of candy, soft drinks and fatty snacks in schools. Nearly a dozen states are considering legislation to turn off school vending machines during class time, strip them of sweets or impose new taxes on soft drinks to pay for teacher salaries and breakfast programs.
In California, legislators appear close to passing a law that would prohibit any drinks but milk, water or juice from being sold in elementary schools, and curtail the hours older students can fuel up at vending machines. In Hawaii, legislators are pushing to oust sodas from school machines altogether. And in North Carolina, lawmakers are calling for a moratorium on soft-drink contracts that pay schools to dot their halls with soda machines.
The wave of legislation, unusual both for its breadth and its assertiveness, grew out of the newest statistics on child obesity from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Teenagers today are almost three times as likely to be overweight as they were 20 years ago, the agency announced this year, prompting many lawmakers to take aim at the junk food they believe is to blame.
"We have a crisis on our hands," said Martha Escutia, a state senator who sponsored California's bill, adding that 50 percent of children are overweight in some of the state's school districts. "It can't help when a child is eating chips and soda at 8 in the morning."
The food industry says children need more exercise, not fewer choices. The bills have also angered school administrators nationwide, intensifying an already heated debate over the prevalence of commercial interests in the education system.
Once little more than a novelty in schools, vending machines have become a principal source of extra money for districts across the nation, bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars for extracurricular activities each year. With dozens of machines lining their hallways, some schools annually earn $50,000 or more in commissions, then use the money for marching bands, computer centers and field trips that might otherwise fall by the wayside.
To keep such programs going, schools are emerging as the staunchest opponents of the proposed restrictions, invoking the same principles of local control that the states themselves use to fight federal standards for academic testing. In many cases, the resistance from schools has been vociferous enough to water down or defeat measures, or at least stall them until the next legislative session rolls around.
"Let the parents, the students and the school community sit down and decide how to handle this," said Robert E. Meeks, legislative director for the Minnesota School Boards Association, which has organized against legislation to curtail soda sales. Mr. Meeks added that Minnesota schools earn roughly $40 million a year from vending machines.
"The states only seem to be interested in local control when it suits them," he said.
Many lawmakers say they find it odd that educators are their biggest foes, considering that the schools are supposed to look after the welfare of their students.
"I can understand why school districts go in search of extra resources," said Jaime L. Capelo Jr., a state representative in Texas who introduced a measure to pare down the amount of junk food in schools. "But it's shameful when they obtain additional resources through contracts with soda companies with little or no regard to the health of their students."
Even some students express concern over the abundance of snack foods in their schools. Nell S. Geiser, a 17-year-old senior at New Vista High School in Boulder, Colo., says the vending machines in the building never shut down. At 7:30 a.m., outside classrooms with corporate symbols like I.B.M. painted on the walls, she says her fellow students gather in front of the humming machines, comparing schedules on daily planners with logos of the WB network, courtesy of a local television station.
"Plenty of kids make their breakfast from a Mountain Dew and a bag of Doritos," said Nell, who organizes fellow students to oppose soda contracts in schools. "You're brought up thinking it's all right to be constantly bombarded with ads and junk food because they're in your school."
Educators, in turn, say that it is the lawmakers who are hypocritical, because as tax revenues sag in tandem with the economy, state legislatures are cutting school budgets, leaving districts with few choices but to search for substitute funds.
"Maybe it's not the best way of making money," said Paul D. Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "But who is responsible for providing funding for schools? The very people who are now saying that we can't engage in creative ways of raising money."
Though they are often sympathetic to the economic woes of school districts, many lawmakers argue that encouraging children to indulge at an early age is ultimately fiscally irresponsible. As students become heavier and their health deteriorates, more serious ailments like diabetes can arise, leading to higher health care costs over time.
"What's a root canal cost? How about treating osteoporosis?" said Gene Pelowski, a Minnesota state representative and high school history teacher who is seeking to scale back soda sales in school. Mr. Pelowski said that he got the idea from his local dental association, which has been sending school principals posters comparing the acidity of Coke, Pepsi and battery acid, and suggesting that teachers drop baby teeth into beakers of soda to let students watch them decay. "If we don't monitor certain illnesses early, society pays," Mr. Pelowski said.
The Department of Agriculture tried to ban soda and candy sales in schools more than two decades ago, but was thwarted by a federal appeals court in 1983 after the National Soft Drink Association challenged the prohibition. Now, federal regulations simply require schools to turn off soda and candy machines in the cafeteria during meal times. Those that sit outside in the hallways can stay on all day.
Several states go further. New York, which, like a handful of other states, is considering ways to increase exercise in schools, already prohibits food of "minimal nutritional value" from being sold until after lunch. New Jersey and Maryland have similar policies. But lawmakers say that such rules often make little difference.
"They're totally ignored," said Paul G. Pinsky, a state senator in Maryland and former high school teacher who introduced a bill this year to switch off vending machines during the school day. "After the sugar high wore off and they were finished bouncing off the walls, my students' heads would fall on the desk," he said. "It made it really difficult to teach."
Part of the problem, legislators say, is that the agreements between schools and soda companies sometimes deter principals from following state policy, especially since how much schools make is often tied to how much they sell.
One 10-year contract that the Pepsi-Cola Company signed in 1997 with the Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., stated that "if the Board of Education actively enforces the policy in which vending machines are turned off during the school day," the school will not get its guaranteed commission. But the company is now taking a more conciliatory stand. Officials of Pepsi, a unit of PepsiCo, say they have redrawn the contract and others like it over the last year, so that they reflect what the company calls the "spirit and the letter" of state policies.
In other states, legislators question whether schools have disregarded state guidelines simply by allowing soda machines on campus.
In recent years, North Carolina schools have signed vending contracts with soft drink companies, even though the state's official policy allows only sales that "contribute to the nutritional well-being of the child and aid in establishing good food habits."
"It's a bit of a conflict, isn't it?" said Ellie G. Kinnaird, a state senator in North Carolina who is seeking a moratorium on soft drink contracts in schools.
Six months ago, the Coca-Cola Company said that it would scale back on binding contracts with schools and offer other beverages in its machines. But the new guidelines do not pertain to existing contracts, and may not affect future ones either.
"At the end of the day it's a decision that has to be made by the local bottler and the school,"` said William B. Marks, a Coca-Cola spokesman.
On average, Americans drink nearly 60 gallons of soda each year, almost 8 gallons more than they did just 10 years ago. For many lawmakers, it is a given that the increase has worsened childhood obesity. To the food industry, assigning the blame to any one type of food is simplistic.
"There are no such things as good foods and bad foods," said Chip Kunde, a legislative director for the Grocery Manufacturers of America, a food industry trade group. "There are just good diets and bad diets."
Researchers vacillate, pointing out that children are eating more of almost everything, not just sweets, while exercising less.
In fact, only 29 percent of students attended daily physical education classes in 1999, compared with 42 percent in 1991, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, making it harder for them to burn off the extra calories they have put on.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company