High-calorie drinks limited in schools

Beverage companies decreased drink calories offered in schools by 90 percent between 2004 and 2010, according to a recent study, a strategy industry and school officials said was meant to help the country’s fight against childhood obesity.

The report comes six years after the country’s major soft drink companies partnered with the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association in agreeing to lower beverage calories available in schools. Those guidelines were later folded into an Ohio law targeting school nutrition and child health.

Nationally, full-calorie drinks available in schools dropped from about 8.2 billion ounces in 2004 to 294 million ounces in 2010, according to the American Journal of Public Health. The decrease of about 97 percent significantly limits students’ access to high-calorie drinks in schools, officials said.

The study’s authors were commissioned to confirm that the soft drink companies were following their agreed-upon guidelines, said lead author Robert Wescott.

“I would say the record of the companies is not perfect, but it’s pretty darn good,” said Wescott, president of Washington, D.C.-based economic research firm Keybridge Research.

Many school vending machines look much different than widely circulated machines. They contain mostly water, juice, sports drinks and milk. Some are painted in the black and white pattern of a cow to underline their message. Many schools don’t sell any soft drinks to students.

Feeling that much of the work on school soft drinks has been done, officials have turned more attention to foods in the lunch lines and activity guidelines in the ongoing struggle with obesity. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that Ohio’s high school student obesity rate was 15 percent, making it one of 12 states to reach that level.

“I think it’s a good step in the right direction,” said Danielle Hodge, a registered dietitian at West Chester Hospital, of limiting drink calories in schools. “I think kids do drink too many sodas and too many flavored coffees, so I think this is a good step to try to curb some of those obesity problems in teenagers.”

Attention to drinks

As concern about student health increased, officials began to more closely watch what children were consuming at school. Those memories make the changes of the last decade even more stark.

“Nine years ago I came into this segment of food service, and you’d see a Honey Buns and two Mountain Dews for breakfast,” said Christopher Ashley, supervisor of food and nutrition for Springfield City Schools. “Now kids are going through the line and getting a better breakfast. That’s just the start.”

Hoping to make an impact on what children received in school, the William J. Clinton Foundation and American Heart Association combined to form the Alliance for a Healthier Generation in 2005. One of the new alliance’s first targets was the beverage industry.

In May 2006, The Coca-Cola Company, Dr Pepper Snapple Group, PepsiCo and the American Beverage Association joined with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation to form the School Beverage Guidelines. Those guidelines eliminated certain drinks in some schools and limited the calories available for older students.

“It’s hard to say no to Bill Clinton, right?” said Kimberly McConville, executive director of the Ohio Soft Drink Association. “They were forming a big domestic project, and the beverage companies said they would be part of it.”

The results could be seen earlier this week at Centerville High School, where sophomores Leena Hirani and Mia Smith and freshman Kendra Phong ate lunch in a commons area. Each had purchased their lunches at school (schools can’t forbid students to bring what they would legally like to eat or drink), and they were drinking chocolate milk and orange juice.

“I would drink this anyway,” Smith said of her orange juice.

Other students carried a variety of beverages including Mountain Dew, Sunkist, milk and fountain drinks from fast-food restaurants, as juniors and seniors can leave the campus for lunch. One student, sophomore Jadon Bischoff, carried a gallon jug filled with a mix of lemonade and iced tea.

“Most days I’ll bring something,” he said. “It can be expensive to buy.”

Hoping for better results

Ohio’s high school student obesity rate fell from 14 percent in 2003 to 12 percent in 2007 but rose to 15 percent in 2011. Health and school officials said efforts like limiting drink calories will hopefully help those numbers drop.

State legislators joined the effort with the 2010 passage of Senate Bill 210, which in part restricted sales of certain foods and drinks in schools. The drink standards matched those the beverage companies agreed to in 2006.

“We want kids to make healthier choices,” said Jon Wesney, coordinating principal at Centerville High School. “We want that at the forefront, and I think it starts with what we offer them in school.”

Schools have also changed food menus, produced more food in their own kitchens and asked more questions about what they purchase, officials said.

“It’s a tremendous amount of work,” said Connie Little, a board member of the School Nutrition Association of Ohio and supervisor of student nutrition for Beavercreek City Schools. “It’s work in the right direction to try to give healthy choices to kids. In the schools, they have that.”