September 1 — 2:09 pm, 2003

Coalition promotes student health, blasts soda

Banning soda sales in schools and promoting healthier eating habits among students were the demands of the majority of the more than 30 parents, nutrition experts, teachers, and child advocates who spoke at last week’s public hearings on a proposed exclusive beverage contract before the city’s School Reform Commission (SRC).

Since May–when an SRC public meeting revealed that the commission was reviewing proposals for an exclusive soft drink beverage contract that could increase the number of school vending machines by more than 100–the Philadelphia Coalition for Healthy Children (PCHC) has been organizing to pressure the District to adhere to healthy nutrition standards and limit student access to sweetened beverages in schools.

The Greater Philadelphia Food Trust, a nonprofit advocacy organization, spearheads the coalition, which represents seven local nutrition and health advocacy groups.

In June PCHC met with Philadelphia city council members and Pennsylvania House Speaker, John Perzel to build political support for their cause. A resulting city council resolution urged the SRC to hold public hearings on the sale of sweetened beverages in public schools.

PCHC wants the School District to phase out all artificially sweetened drinks and replace them with 100 percent juice, water, and milk no later than the start of the 2004-05 school year because, according to the coalition, students already have enough access to unhealthy food choices outside of school.

"We must do all we can to help our teenagers learn healthy eating habits by restricting the sale of both carbonated and non-carbonated sweetened drinks in all schools," Megan McGreevy, a nutritionist and PCHC spokeswoman, said at the first of two hearings held on the issue.

However, District Division of Food Services Director Paul Schmid noted that sweetened drinks are only available in high schools and faculty lounges, not to elementary school students, with the sale of carbonated beverages in vending machines accounting for only 13 percent of all sales.

"The overwhelming majority of what is served and what is consumed is healthy and nutritious," said Schmid.

Cecilia James, PCHC supporter and public school cafeteria worker, urged the SRC to put student health above its financial concerns.

"The District needs to step up to the plate and show concern that goes beyond the bottom line," said James.

Lauded by nutrition advocates in early July, School District CEO Paul Vallas urged the SRC to impose a ban on the sale of soda in all public schools, but no final decision has yet been made.

According to District spokesman Vincent Thompson, the SRC is currently studying the public testimony given at the beverage contract hearings, and the current beverage contract will remain in place until the Commission votes on the issue.

"They have not decided when they are going to deal with this issue," Thompson said.

School officials in Los Angeles and New York have already imposed a ban on the sale of sweetened beverages to students in public schools.

For more information call the Food Trust at 215-568-0830 or visit www.thefoodtrust.org.

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