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Smarts About Snacks
Pitch for More Healthful Fare Proves a Tough Sell to Schools

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.

Today, the snacks are a small part of the district's $60 million cafeteria business, and the experiment is successful and growing, Townsend said. The district has installed an additional 30 fruit juice machines at other schools.

Next year, the county plans to solicit a district-wide bid for a vending machine operator instead of allowing each school to negotiate on its own. As part of the contract, the school district would regulate the food sold. Townsend said he hoped to set up a revenue-sharing program with schools so principals would not lose discretionary funding.

"After many years of not talking about it and competing against each other, we're giving them a piece of the pie to provide kids with a healthy meal," Townsend said.

In arguing against machines with fresh and more healthful food, schools say perishables such as fruit and yogurt do not keep as well as preservative-laden snacks. If uneaten, the food is wasted and so are the potential proceeds.

Although some of McMahan's machines have adequate refrigeration, she hesitates to stock perishables unless she knows demand will be high.

"I have tried smoothie-like items and they do okay," McMahan said, "but I wish kids would eat more of that. It's a very new concept."

In California's Mount Diablo Unified School District, northeast of San Francisco, food service officials are working out the glitches in a new breed of vending machines serving such chilled breakfast foods as juice and bagels. In Prince George's County, Townsend is looking into machinery that can store and vend complete lunches, including such perishables as fruit.

There is also the notion that schoolchildren will not eat healthful foods.

"Kids, even adults, come to expect that certain foods are kid foods," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "We tend to feed kids food that's heavily marketed because kids are familiar with them and easily accept them."

So instead of replacing the snacks, some schools across the region are restricting the operating hours of vending machines to limit consumption of junk food.

In a study by the Agriculture Department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that surveyed 16 schools before and after improving nutritional standards, 12 increased revenue and four reported no change, indicating that students would eat more nutritious foods if available.

"Kids are making decisions that affect their long-term health," Wootan said. "And they're making these decisions without their parent being present. All food choices for kids at school should be healthy."

Although Bladensburg still sells such snacks as Mrs. Freshley's Powdered Sugar Mini Donuts, taking the reins on sales is the first step in reforming the snack business in schools, Townsend said. Nestle's Nesquik milkshakes, with calcium and Vitamins A, C, D, and Snapple 100% Juiced, with calcium and Vitamins A, C, E, have replaced Coca-Cola, which has no vitamins.

The drinks are hardly sugar-free or low in calories, however. In terms of sugar and calorie content, a 13.5-ounce bottle of Nesquik (360 calories, 48 grams of sugar) trumps a 12-ounce can of Snapple (170 calories, 40 grams of sugar) and an 12-ounce serving of Coca-Cola Classic (97 calories, about 39 grams of sugar).

Under pressure from nutritionists and parents, some Washington-area school systems have established standards for the fat and sugar content of snacks sold in machines as well as items sold in school stores and as part of fundraisers.

In 2004, after years of selling soda, Montgomery County limited approved drinks to water, flavored noncarbonated water, 100 percent fruit juices and fruit drinks with a minimum of 50 percent juice. The school system allows sports drinks to be sold, but only near physical education areas.

The D.C. Public Schools policy rejects sports drinks. For nonelite athletes, like children, Gatorade just adds extra calories, sugar and sodium to diets, nutritionists said.

Yet vending machines are often low on the nutrition to-do list.

Jeff Platenberg, who oversees food service at Loudoun County Public Schools, said he has heard of McMahan's Smart Snacks and is interested in talking to her. Now, however, he is focused on changing the school lunch program, with plans to offer trans-fat-free margarine and whole wheat pasta.

"My focus is to have students participate in meal programs," he said. "Having snacks would detract from that."

A look at Manassas Park High's Smart Snacks vending machine illustrates that change doesn't have to be district-wide. Schools can tackle the problem on a smaller scale.

Last year, Manassas Park's snack machine was stocked with doughnuts and chips. In September, the 100-calorie pack Soy Crisp minis, with 3 grams of fat, took students by surprise. Even though the all-natural snacks cost 25 to 50 cents more than other snacks, sales have not dipped, school officials said.

When Manassas Park's last bell rings at 2:15 p.m., the vending machine opens for business. Sophomore Jessica Conaway stays at school until 6:15 p.m., either for cheerleading practice or the spring musical. She used to pack her own snacks, but now she buys a Clif Bar, with 27 vitamins and minerals, to hold her until dinner.

"With sports," she said, "you don't want to be munching on a bag of Doritos before you run a mile."

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