School Beverage Rules are Seriously Misguided

Oct. 3, 2008
The Way I See It

Since the U.S. beverage industry announced a voluntary commitment to reduce soda in public schools in 2006, are children drinking any less soda?

It’s a reasonable question, given the time, energy and funds invested in this much heralded initiative.

The American Beverage Association (ABA) recently released a progress report two years into a 3-year implementation of its national school beverage guidelines.

The guidelines were both an attempt to improve kids’ health and to pre-empt government regulations in response to public concerns about childhood obesity. Some of us questioned the industry’s initiative since it had been documented that only a small amount of soda sales are made in the school environment.

School beverage sales fall

The ABA report noted that the volume of beverages in elementary, middle and high schools fell 43 percent from 2004 to 2007/2008. High school volumes fell by 42 percent while middle and elementary schools dropped by 51 percent and 37 percent, respectively.

The only beverage segment to gain was water, up 18 percent. Juice drinks, 100 percent juices, teas, sports drinks, diet sodas and regular sodas all saw high double digits drops.

The report notes the industry surpassed its goal to have 75 percent of schools under contract with beverage providers in compliance by the start of the current school year; 79 percent were already in compliance.

The ABA positioned all this as progress since less soda in schools means kids are drinking less soda.

This is a faulty conclusion.

Rules don’t change consumption

No sooner did the ABA announce its findings than a study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association reported that such restrictions haven’t made much difference in how much soda kids actually consume.

Researchers at the Pardee RAND Graduate School in Santa Monica, Calif. compared the soft drink consumption of children at schools where it was sold and children at schools where it was not.

Researchers analyzed surveys done in 2004 that looked at more than 10,000 fifth graders in 40 states. At the schools where soda was not sold, only about 4 percent more students reported not having had any soda in the past week.

These findings shouldn’t surprise anyone, given the fact that kids only consume a small amount of their daily intake at school.

The Pardee RAND researchers concluded what many observers have said all along: health officials need to act more broadly, focusing on dietary habits in the home and doing more to encourage healthy eating.

It would be hard to estimate the amount of time, money and energy that has been invested in regulating the placement of beverage machines in schools, let alone snack, food and ice cream machines.

Emphasis has been misguided

The schools have paid a big price for this effort in futility. They have lost valuable revenue, cut programs and forced taxpayers to shoulder a heavier burden.

Government officials at all levels have been too quick to impose nutrition restrictions in schools. The bigger emphasis, as many of us have been saying all along, should be on improving nutrition education.