Drink to health

May 05, 2006

The voluntary agreement by the American Beverage Association and the three major soft-drink manufacturers to take most sodas out of schools by 2009 is more than welcome. Too much junk food and too little exercise have caused America's childhood obesity rate to hit the 15 percent mark. Restricting students' access to sugary sodas and fruit drinks that have little or no nutritional value won't cure the problem, but it's an important step in the right direction.

Pushed by a number of health advocates - who were also exploring the possibility of legal action - the makers of Coke, Pepsi and Snapple won't give up their lucrative school contracts, but they'll switch products and start selling healthier drinks to public, private and parochial schools attended by about 35 million students. Under the agreement, elementary schools will serve only water, unsweetened juices and low- and non-fat milk. Serving sizes will be no greater than 8 ounces. Middle schools could serve the same drinks, but up to 10 ounces in size. High schools could serve as much as 12 ounces of juice, milk, sports drinks and diet sodas to students; half the products offered must be of the low- or no-calorie variety.

Maryland has been promoting better school menus as the State Board of Education proposed healthier standards for school cafeterias that should go into effect no later than this fall. The state standards, which are also voluntary, urge school districts to limit portion sizes as well as the fat content of snack foods, and to sell more water, milk and real fruit juices. Schools are also expected to shut off vending machines that sell sodas and candy until after school hours, instead of after the last lunch period.

The experience in Maryland school districts and elsewhere is that healthier foods find their own sizable market. By limiting the types and sizes of acceptable drinks, the new agreement should help teach students worthwhile lessons about eating and drinking in moderation and promoting healthier choices.

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