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Soda Ban Means Change at Schools
Policy Bolsters Regional Systems That Already Limited Sales

By Mary Otto and Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, May 4, 2006

In the corridor of Atholton High School in Columbia, the three drink machines shine like an oasis at the end of the day.

As the school bell rings, teenagers swarm them. The big red Coke machine in the center gets Angelia DiGiuseppe's dollar. Coke and Mountain Dew, she explained, help her study.

"I use soda a lot,'' she said, "to stay up."

But the days of buying sugar-laden soft drinks at school are officially numbered. Yesterday, the beverage industry announced that it will voluntarily remove the high-calorie sodas from all schools, under an agreement with anti-obesity groups led by former president Bill Clinton.

The pact will probably bolster efforts in Washington area school systems -- many of which have been on the forefront of policing what students are eating and drinking. The District and Fairfax and Montgomery counties, among others, ban the sale of soft drinks during the school day.

Such efforts are cutting into the revenues that schools receive from vending machines, principals say, and the national agreement will doubtless accelerate that trend.

"The money is important, but not as important as kids' health," said Sean Bulson, principal at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School.

The national pact restricts the sale of drinks in elementary schools to water, milk and lower-calorie juices in containers no larger than eight ounces. In middle schools, those drinks can be 10 ounces.

In high schools, the drink size will be limited to 12 ounces. No sugary sodas will be sold, and half the drinks offered will be water or low-calorie beverages, such as diet soda. Sport drinks will be allowed if they have fewer than 100 calories.

"I think it's a great step in the right direction," said Robin Ziegler, chief of school and community nutrition programs for the Maryland State Department of Education.

Last year, the Maryland Board of Education adopted a nutritional policy that asked schools to limit the sale of foods with minimal nutritional value such as candy and soda to after-school hours. Twenty-two of the 24 school districts have adopted the policy, said Ziegler, who spoke while at a conference focused on a strategy for cutting obesity at all ages.

Similarly, Virginia state school regulations prohibit the sale of non-nutritional drinks and snacks while school meals are being sold. But state Department of Education spokesman Charles B. Pyle said yesterday that he was unsure how the agreement will play out in local communities. "What a school sells is still a local matter," he said, and the sale of such things as soft drinks is often used to supplement programs parents want in their schools. "It's part of school culture," he said.

Like other food companies, however, the beverage industry has been under considerable pressure from parents and lawmakers to curb the sale of high-calorie, heavily sugared products, particularly in schools.

At the same time, a coalition of lawyers who successfully sued tobacco companies has been threatening over the past year to sue soft drink makers over selling sodas in schools. Joining with that coalition was the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a public advocacy group that has called for health warnings on soda similar to those on cigarettes.

"It's important to keep in mind that this action by the soft drink industry is as voluntary as a shotgun wedding,'' said Margo G. Wootan, the center's director of nutrition policy. "There is a lot of momentum on these issues at the state and local level."

Officials in D.C. public schools, working closely with the center, adopted one of the strictest policies, allowing only water, seltzer, 100 percent fruit juices, low-fat and fat-free milk to be sold during the school day -- though soda and sports drinks could be sold 30 minutes after the school day ended, Wootan said. An Arlington ban on soda took effect last year.

Montgomery school officials adopted a policy in 2004 limiting beverage choices during the school day to water, flavored non-carbonated water, 100 percent fruit juices or beverages with at least 50 percent fruit juice. Sport drinks are only sold in the physical education area.

Other area school systems said the new agreement will mean changes for their campuses.

In Prince George's County, Bladensburg High School, which opened last August with a rebuilt campus, complies with the new standards announced yesterday. But system spokesman John White said getting the other county high schools to reach full compliance with the new beverage policy will be "time-consuming and complex."

Staff writers Caroline E. Mayer, Maria Glod, Nick Anderson and Josh Zumbrun contributed to this report.

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