YOUNG LIVES AT RISK Our Overweight Children

Smarts About Snacks

One local school struggles to provide healthier snack options for its students, while still supplying tasty choices.
By Kendra Marr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 19, 2008

Stephanie McMahan thought her idea could not miss: With childhood obesity and pre-diabetes on the rise, why not fill school vending machines with healthful snacks and drinks?

By last year, McMahan of Sterling had stockpiled items to fill her proposed Smart Snacks vending machines. The snacks and drinks included Clif Bars, baked pita chips and all-natural rice and corn puffs.

Today, McMahan has eight contracts, which include a gym, a hospital and a martial arts studio. But after taking her pitch to a number of local schools, she has a machine at only one: Manassas Park High, with 600 students.

"We've had a really hard time, surprisingly," said McMahan, 30, whose son turns 2 in July.

For years, consumer advocates and nutritionists have said that schools should stock more healthful snacks, but schools and districts have been reluctant to make that change. Advocates say a number of obstacles have slowed efforts to overhaul the nutritional quality of snacks and drinks.

Vending contracts with soft drink companies, for example, support a vigorous microeconomy. Budget-strapped principals have signed lucrative deals with Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. For a cut of the sales, schools can buy band uniforms and other must-haves, while the company gets exclusive rights to sell its products on campus. A 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office found that almost 75 percent of high schools had signed exclusive soft drink contracts.

Recent studies have challenged the sentiment that junk food is a necessary evil for schools. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has been campaigning to get junk food out of schools nationwide, found that on average schools raise 33 cents for every dollar that students spend at soft drink machines in a 2006 study of 120 contracts in 16 states.

The commission paid by Smart Snacks is 10 to 15 percent of net profit after $500 in sales.

"We do pay commissions, so I don't know what the problem is," McMahan said. "They tell me, 'We're under contract,' or 'We're not interested.' "

Some changes are on the way. In 2006, the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which is helping to fight childhood obesity, reached agreements with representatives of Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Cadbury Schweppes and the American Beverage Association to limit portion sizes, reduce calories and remove all sugared sodas from schools nationwide by the 2009-10 school year. Campbell Soup, Dannon, Kraft Foods, Mars and Frito Lay have announced their own voluntary nutrition guidelines with the alliance.

Locally, in an effort to better monitor what items are sold, Montgomery County officials reasserted control of vending contracts this school year. Such contracts were previously negotiated at the school level. As beverage contracts expire at individual schools, they'll move to a district-wide program.

Nearly three years ago, after Bladensburg High School opened its revamped five-story building, Prince George's County also wrested control of the high school's vending machines from outside vendors. The district negotiated with Bladensburg's principal to ban carbonated drinks and install district-run vending machines stocked with baked chips and fruit juice in the cafeteria, said Daniel P. Townsend, director of the district's department of food and nutrition services.

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