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Clinton Soda Deal Ignores School Funding Problems

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This past July, former President Bill Clinton announced an initiative in conjunction with the William J. Clinton Foundation to fight childhood obesity. In that effort he has been negotiating for the past year or so with the three major beverage companies, namely Cadbury Schweppes PLC, the Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo. Inc., to decrease the sale of soda and sweetened beverages in public school vending machines.

Clinton hopes that with the help of the American Beverage Association to advocate the replacement of high calorie drinks with more water and juice drink choices available for sale in not only United States high schools but also in some middle schools. He hopes to expand the initiative to selected snacks manufacturers as well in order to encourage healthier eating amongst school-aged children. However, his enthusiasm for his new leaf on healthy eating since his double bypass surgery in 2004 falls far short of the mark in analyzing the underlying bevy of problems that contribute to childhood and adolescent obesity.

Perhaps Mr. Clinton's focus on his self-lauded vending machine deals will help illuminate the sad fiscal shape school districts are in across the country when forced to hinge their school budgets on the sales of soda and candy bars. For in fact over the term of the Clinton Administration vending machine sales and exclusive lucrative contracts with soda bottling companies increased exponentially. They became necessary according to school administrators and school boards nationwide as school budgets were tightened specifically during his tenure.

In an interview with Fox News' Greta Van Susteren in 2005, Bill Clinton stated that "You've got vending machines in all the schools that offer unhealthy foods and the local PTA gets a cut from the profits of the vending machine." Upon announcing his deal in July 2006 to get the beverage companies to dramatically decrease soda in vending machines and replace them with sports drinks, flavored waters and diet sodas in high schools by 2009, he still has not correctly stated the path of the realized revenues from vending machine sales in school districts. Either he is ignorant on the subject or chooses to be so.

Exclusive contracts with beverage and snack food manufacturers in the public schools exist under myriad sets of rules and regulations from each state to each respective school district. It is up to school boards, who volunteer school superintendents or principals to enter negotiations with corporate entities for vending machine contracts. They usually provide the biggest bang for their buck over any other kind of school fundraising efforts.

Such deals generally require a 5 to 10-year commitment from the school or school district where the beverage company or food manufacturer makes certain demands of the school in order to for them to receive a share of the sales revenue. Usually a school receives approximately 40% of profits provided they agree to signage on their athletic fields, advertising allowed on the machines and can guarantee a specific number of students within the school. Such deals can garner anywhere from $50,000.00 to $150,000.00 per year depending on the size of the school district.

But where Mr. Clinton is misleading is in his statement that the revenues go to the PTA or to extra-curricular activities which the PTA sponsors. For it is precisely exclusive contracts with beverage and snack food companies negotiated by the school districts or principals which must go into a general school fund and be used for a wide array of school expenses. With school budgets annually falling short not just for "extras" but for everyday school expenses, almost every school district is dependent upon vending machine sales in addition to school lunch a la carte food sales, snack bars and school stores which also sell food and snacks.

However, contrary to what most think, a school general fund pays for necessities such as school maintenance, computer wiring, classroom supplies, library books, supplemental reading programs, student assembly programs and even playground equipment. Art supplies, music classes and physical education considered "unnecessary" expenditures in most school board budgets are not part of all curriculums and very often are then dependent upon additional fundraisers by PTA's and student-run fundraisers.

The other issue of note which is not addressed by the food hawks or Bill Clinton, famous for his triangulating approach on issues during his two terms as president, is the lack of the facts regarding a multitude of problems which has called for cutting the fat and calories. Since there is presently only one state left in the U.S., that being Connecticut, which mandates daily physical education classes for elementary schoolchildren, it would appear that over the past 15 years as obesity has grown to 15% of school age children that there has been no focus on physical education, health and nutritional education and recess, by the federal government. And much of that time was on Clinton's watch.

It was not until the year 2000, during President Clinton's final year in office, that he rolled out a plan prepared by Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala and Secretary of Education Richard Riley titled, "Promoting Health for Young People through Physical Activity and Sports." It provided 10 strategies to promote better health among young people with increased participation in physical activity and sports. It did not address physical education in the schools but rather extra-curricular and off-campus activities in conjunction with the U.S. Olympic Committee. Nor did either Shalala or Riley address the looming crisis of financing education through vending machine sales and fundraising while at the same time not requiring schools to provide physical education or daily recess for children, during their years serving under Clinton.

The latest excuse for the elimination of recess in elementary education has been pinned on the No Child Left Behind Act enacted in 2001, whereby principals and teachers claim that the standardized testing demands and its requirements have left little time for outdoor activities, thus less recess. Lawsuits and the fear of bullying, code for more lawsuits, is also at play.

Such begs the question again about real concern for the health of children who are cooped up all day and not given the chance to burn off excess energy and exercise while developing a good habit in doing so. One can only wonder about the habitual doling out of Ritalin, primarily to little boys, like the foreboding candy, by physicians upon the recommendation of school administrators. Perhaps if kids could run off their pent up energy they would be able to sit still longer in their seats without need of pharmaceuticals.

Addiction to sweets is one problem which does not address schools' addiction to vending machines and the sale of "competitive foods" which refers to food sold outside of the School Lunch Program but from vending machines or in a la carte lines in the school cafeteria or school store. These snack foods supposedly "compete" with the School Lunch Program foods as provided by the federal government. And as schools are trying to balance their budgets on the backs of granola bars or lower fat candy bars, each school loses nearly $4.00 per child should they choose to skip lunch, eat off campus, or bring their own. It is but one more irony not lost on school administrators either.

The amount of time now occupied by principals, now largely saddled with vending contract negotiations, fundraising organization duties and serving as in-house nutritional spokesmen is all time lost from concentrating on far more important decisions in educating our country's youth. And most administrators do not follow through on how much revenue is generated from sales, where and how much revenue is eventually spent on which programs, or how much the other fundraising groups' activities contribute to various programs. Yet to solely blame the principals for this required delegation is unfair. Rather, it would seem that school boards should be held more accountable by the public.

But given the disconnect between the federal government, the states, the localities and the various school districts where no mandates or regulations exist with respect to allocation of vending machine sales or fundraisers in schools, it will be difficult for a voluntary plan such as Mr. Clinton's to be successful. For at most school fundraisers most proceeds are still largely generated from the sale of foods with minimal nutritional value, known as FMNV's, where they are largely exempt from dietary restrictions.

Back in 1946 when the National School Lunch Program was established, its goal was to provide nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches in participating schools for children of need. In 1975, the National School Breakfast Program was established, also based upon need, as a free or cost-reduced program for those wishing to participate. Neither program was set up in order for schools to subsidize school districts or to encourage bad eating habits. And neither program was concerned about child obesity as it did not exist at either time.

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Diane M. Grassi is an investigative journalist and reporter providing topical and in-depth articles and analysis on U.S. public policy and governmental affairs, including key federal and state legislation as well as court decisions relative to the (more...)
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