School lunches, sodas are a bad mix, senator says

April 26, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- It may be true, as the advertising slogan says, that things go better with Coke. But school lunch is not one of them, the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee said yesterday.

The chairman, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, D-Vt., has introduced a bill that would encourage schools to restrict or ban the sale of soft drinks and other items of "minimal nutritional value."

The Coca-Cola Co. is lobbying against the proposal. It has organized a letter-writing campaign by school principals, superintendents and coaches, who fear they will lose some of the money they get from vending machines. The campaign has prompted Mr. Leahy to complain that the company puts profits ahead of children's health.

The tiff has set off a brouhaha.

"As chairman of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee," Mr. Leahy said, "I have stood on the Senate floor and defended child-nutrition programs hundreds of times. I have fended off attacks from drug companies, petty crooks, price fixers, budget cutters and critics of all kinds.

"I never thought I would see the day that I would have to defend our child-nutrition programs under heavy attack from the Coca-Cola Co., one of America's corporate giants, with worldwide profits of $2.1 billion last year."

Coke's campaign illustrates the aggressive efforts of food companies to gain access to the school market. Trade shows and journals sponsored by school food-service workers are full of such appeals: "Bring Taco Bell products to your school!" "Pizza Hut makes school lunch fun."

Coca-Cola sounded the alarm in letters to school officials around the country. Bonnie J. Pruett, an assistant vice president of Coca-Cola, warned against "further government restriction on the sale of soft drinks in schools." She included a form letter denouncing the Leahy proposal and suggested that school officials send it to Congress.

School officials in Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, Tennessee, New Hampshire and New Jersey complied, using language similar or identical to that recommended by Ms. Pruett.

Randal W. Donaldson, a spokesman for Coca-Cola, in Atlanta, said: "We make no nutritional claims for soft drinks, but they can be part of a balanced diet. Our strategy is ubiquity. We want to put soft drinks within arm's reach of desire. We strive to make soft drinks widely available, and schools are one channel we want to make them available in."

Further restrictions on school sales would not only harm "the business of our bottlers," but also deprive schools of money used for athletic teams, band uniforms, yearbooks and other extracurricular activities, Mr. Donaldson said.

But Dorothy Caldwell, director of child nutrition for the Arkansas Department of Education, disagreed.

"It is the schools' responsibility to teach students to eat healthfully," said Ms. Caldwell, the president of the American School Food Service Association, whose 65,000 members operate school lunch and breakfast programs. "The sale of foods of minimal nutritional value deters students from learning the right lessons. They may be taught good nutrition in the classroom, but they get a different message if they can buy soft drinks and snack foods right outside the school cafeteria. It suggests that schools are more interested in their dollars than their health."

5l Mr. Leahy's bill shows how he has reoriented the Agriculture Committee, shifting its focus away from price supports for farmers to nutrition assistance for consumers.

Under current law and regulations, schools often allow students to buy soft drinks and candy from vending machines before lunch.

Under Mr. Leahy's bill, local authorities would still set policy and would not be required to ban the sale of soft drinks.

But the secretary of agriculture would recommend "model language" banning the sale of soft drinks and other foods of minimal nutritional value anywhere on school grounds before the end of the last lunch period.

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