Ban school vending machines

March 02, 2001|By Michael Tabor

CALL ME old-fashioned, but I feel that a public school is a public trust and that advertising, commercials and various enticements to consume products should not be permitted. For money, we've let corporate interests compromise the health of our children.

In my son's high school, 30 colorful cola, snack and candy machines placed throughout the building are available all day. He has no similar access to healthy juices, bottled water, nutritious snacks or teas. And, although he is not exposed to commercial messages on Channel One television as he would be in Baltimore City and five Maryland counties, corporate logos and products in his text books and classrooms are commonplace.

These practices are offensive and unethical because students are a captive audience. They are targeted by corporations, which seek their brand loyalty and spending power. There are no professional gatekeepers, no educational review process or parental involvement. Whoever pays the biggest bucks gets the contract.

Isn't this the American way? Businesses profit from the sales of their products. But, in this case, what I have discovered about the excessive use of these products has astounded and enraged me.

The biggest cost to society won't appear for a several years. When it does, it will come as large increases in public taxes to cover increased health care costs. Obesity among adolescents has risen by 100 percent between 1980 and 1994. Teen-age boys consume an average of 34 teaspoons of sugar a day from soft drinks and candy. Calcium intake among active girls who have switched from milk to soft drinks has decreased their bone density. Caffeine consumption is diminishing students' ability to learn, sleep and relax. Bathing children's teeth in sugar obviously leads to decay.

Harvard Medical School studies anticipate dramatic increases in osteoporosis in younger women while other studies show similar negative trends among the general population in diabetes, coronary disease and kidney disease.

State Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George's, recently introduced legislation to limit -- not eliminate -- commercial involvement in public schools. He offered accountability standards for principals when they receive funds from junk food contracts and asked that machines be turned on only when the school day ends.

At the Feb. 20 hearing on the bill, junk food interests and school officials who receive their dollars swarmed the meeting. Lobbyist Bruce Bereano ("This is unfair to business") was hired by the Md./D.C. Vending Association to protect its interests. The head honchos from Channel One in New York City came down in force.

As a parent, I was offended by the absence of the guardians of our children. Where was state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and representatives from the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the boards of education or the governor's office?

The most pathetic reaction at the hearings came from Sen. Christopher McCabe, R-Howard County, who said this was simply not an issue for his constituency.

"I've never even received a single phone call from my constituents on this issue," he said, as if that gave him license not to care about the health of our children.

And you could see the bill's co-sponsors, Senators Paula Hollinger, D-Baltimore County, and Clarence W. Blount, D-Baltimore City, soften under the impact of criticism from the lobbyists and school principals.

Unfortunately, Mr. Pinsky's bill probably will be killed in committee, diluted or voted down on the Senate floor. Commercial interests and their supporters know their money speaks louder than even the health of our children. Our legislators and those to whom we entrust our children's future are, rather cheaply, at the disposal of those interests.

Courageous voices like Mr. Pinsky's will echo in the hallowed halls. As for me, at least I understand that what we do today affects what happens tomorrow.

Michael Tabor lives in Takoma Park and has formed a group against commercial involvement in schools.

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