Sugar Wars: Taking it to the Peddlers of Diabetes and Osteoporosis by John Borowski
I spend a lot of my time in school, a place where kids create the foundations of democracy, delve into the arts, sharpen their sense of wonder and build equity in our society. But I, like many teachers, am fighting a nemesis, one that inhibits thought, puts children on a roller coaster of emotion and drains their vitality. This nemesis is often an invited and welcomed guest: soda pop. Nearly 19 out of every 20 high schools allows the sale of soda onsite.
Ironically, the past can foretell the future. In 1931, a Coke bottler bragged, “the kids play basketball at recess on Coca-Cola goals, use Coca-Cola blotters to blot our their troubles, consult a Coca-Cola thermometer and write their notes on Coca-Cola tablets.” Seventy years later, Coca-Cola’s senior vice president for public affairs and its chief lobbyist has graduated from passing out Coke blotters: no, John Downs Jr. now has a seat on the National Parents and Teachers Association (PTA) as a board member! Under the Bush Administration the Secretary of Health, Tommy Thompson has heralded the Grocery Manufacturing Association for its “fine job in promoting healthy eating.” With positioning on school-related organizations, and aided and abetted by the Bush Administration (Leave No “sugared” Child Behind?), pop pimping predators in business suits eye our schools, with their massive populations of vulnerable young people, as a delivery systems for new marks.
Children, seduced daily by television (watching an average of 3-4 hours), are bombarded with 10,000 food advertisements yearly, many to consume pop. In 1998, the advertising budget for soft drinks was $115.5 million. School often is the only “relatively commercial free” environment left for children. The sugar peddlers know this; they know that school provides a captive audience, with the potential to generate life-long and dedicated brand consumers. Their strategy is simple: entice school administrators with dollars. It is immoral, unethical and unconscionable, yet corporate rules operate absent constraints.
Coca-Cola provides “Coke in Education Day,” where Coke officials lecture in economic classes and analysis of Coke products are done for chemistry. But do you think that this “Coke Day” studies the yearly cost of obesity in the United States, calculated between $75-100 billion? Do they encourage the chemistry class to analyze that for every can of Coke you drink, it takes 32 glasses of water to neutralize the phosphoric acid in your body? Would they do experiments that show when sugar is combined with carbon dioxide the calcium/phosphorous ratio in the body is upset, making bones brittle?
Don’t bet on it.
Coke doesn’t just target schools. In 1998, Coca-Cola paid the Boys and Girls Clubs of America $60 million for exclusive marketing of their chemical/sugar water in 2,000 clubs!
How many Coke or PepsiCo officials have read “Liquid Candy” a report that shows that soft drinks are the single greatest source of refined sugar in children’s diets? PepsiCo holds the “pouring contract” in my school district. Two years ago, when a cheerleader from the newly built West Salem High tried to sell bottled water, the monolithic pop company crushed her attempts. Had PepsiCo fallen on hard times and couldn’t stand the competition? Of course not. As of July this year, their profits are up by 12% from last year, with a first quarter net profit of $1.06 Billion.
Here is some of the staggering data that damns any reason to peddle pop in our public schools: • One can of coke contains nearly 10 teaspoons of sugar, the entire daily recommended amount of calories from sugar • One of five American children is now considered obese. Americans consume nearly 53 teaspoons of sugar daily • Sugar in soda makes blood acidic robbing the body of calcium and which can lead to osteoporosis • The “quick energy” from soda is followed by “lows”—ask any teacher who has to deal with students loaded with sugar • The sugar in soda helps to whither crucial bacteria in our intestines, reducing vitamin B which inhibits thinking, making children sleepy • Studies have shown that girls who play sports and consumed soda daily experienced 3x the risk of bone fractures
Before considering taking the battle to the sugar pushers, consider that victories are being recorded nationwide and people are making the difference. California has banned junk food/pop sales in elementary and middle schools. Los Angeles has banned the sale of soda in all public schools, and Philadelphia has followed with a similar plan. These are tremendous victories, yet there is much work ahead. We all can do the legwork to free our children from osteoporosis, diabetes, obesity and predatory corporate advertising.
The strategy is simple and clear, the time for compromise and apathy is over. Our children must not be tools for negotiating massive profits for multinational corporations.
First, call Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson and chide him for being a lapdog to the sugar pushers. The toll free number is 1-877-696-6775. He told the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) to “go on the offensive” against critics blaming the food industry for obesity. This was proudly stated in a GMA news release. Tell him that the federal government should take a position of “NO SODA POP VENDING” in schools.
Second, call the PTA and insist that they take an unambiguous position against the vending of pop in schools. The President of the PTA, Linda Hodge, can be reached toll free at 800-307-4782 (extension 312). Demand that John Downs Jr. be removed from the PTA board due to conflict of interest. On the PTA’s homepage you can contact your own state’s PTA representative. The PTA provides rosy language about children’s health in schools, yet avoids the tough talk needed to protect children from soda pop.
Third, contact the National Association of Secondary School Principals. Principals are crucial when it comes to decision-making in their districts. On the NASSP website under “Guidelines for School Beverage Partnerships” they speak eloquently; “The importance of providing healthy choices to students, faculty, and school visitors should be paramount for school officials in discussions with beverage companies.”
If healthy choices are “paramount” then soda pop contracts should be abolished. You can contact Jay Engeln at [email protected]. He is the Resident Practitioner for the Business/School Partnerships at NASSP. He also speaks on the “benefits” of pop contracts through the Council for Corporate and School Partners: funded by, you got it, the Coca-Cola Corporation. Call your local principal and demand that soda contracts with the school district be voided.
Fourth, contact the National School Board Association (NSBA) at [email protected]. In the last three weeks I have contacted all fifty state contacts and have received two responses. On their home page, you can find the email of your state representative. Ironically, in his book, “Food Fight” Doctor Kelly Brownell, Director of the Yale Center for Eating Disorders, states that the soft drink and sugar lobbyists fight off legislation proposed by the Department of Agriculture “aided by the National School Board Association and the National Association of Secondary School Principals.” I suggest that school librarians in high schools make this book available and all parents should read it as well.
Lastly, contact your own child’s school. Write editorials. Speak up at soccer, music, basketball and other school fund-raisers. The American Academy of Pediatrics has come out with a policy statement that suggests limits on soft drinks. With this in hand, contact your local pediatricians and ask them to write letters demanding that pop be removed from public schools.
Defenders of pop contracts will wail, “We need the money.” That is true, but this fact exists as a result of larger social choices. Our nation funds organizations like the “School of the Americas” or provide vast tax subsidies for tobacco, timber extraction and oil exploration. How about funneling a fraction of those dollars into music, science and sports for the children? If corporations want to support kids, let them make altruistic donations without strings.
Some will cry that students need to make their own beverage choices. Nonsense! If their elders actively peddle pop in schools, it sends the message that it is OK. When did adults give up on providing directions through the minefield of adolescence? Let soda pop be an infrequent and rare treat, not a substitute for water, fruit juices and milk. Meanwhile, we can take schools back from the purveyors of osteoporosis, diabetes and public apathy.
John F. Borowski is a marine and environmental science teacher in Salem, Oregon. His pieces have appeared in the N.Y. Times, Utne Reader, numerous newspapers and websites. He may be reached at [email protected]