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Capitol powers seek vending numbers

So how much are schools making off vending machines, anyway?

Two leaders on Utah's Capitol Hill want to know.

House Minority Assistant Whip Patricia Jones, D-Cottonwood Heights, has requested a legislative audit of school vending machine profits and how they are being spent.

The request is expected to come before the Legislative Audit Subcommittee later this month.

"I just think if they're using our children in our schools to sell products, it (is in) the taxpayers' best interest and in the parents' best interest to find out how those funds are being used," Jones said.

Jones' quest is "absolutely" supported by House Speaker Greg Curtis, R-Sandy.

"If we need to audit it to get that, yeah," Curtis said. "I don't think we can make any sound policy decisions without understanding the ramifications."

Those policy decisions, Curtis said, might entail giving school districts state money for bowing out of soft-drink contracts.

A 2004 Utah State Office of Education survey found statewide profits total $2.26 million. Thirty-two of 40 school districts and five charter schools responded to the survey.

Soft-drink contracts bring $10,000 awards up front to Highland and East High schools, for instance, according to contracts provided by the Salt Lake City School District. Granite District schools are sharing $2.5 million from a 10-year soda giant contract. The money goes solely to programs that benefit students, be they activities or even books, Granite spokesman Randy Ripplinger said.

Salt Lake pediatrician Dr. Mark Templeman, whose children attend Cottonwood Elementary in Granite, wants to abolish soft drinks and junk food in all school vending machines. He has been talking with Reps. Jones and Curtis about his concerns.

"We can't afford what's happening in the obesity epidemic," he said. "We need to keep our students healthy so they can become taxpayers rather than dependent on our medical system in the future."

Templeman hopes lawmakers will help districts to bag the junk food.

Curtis said he is looking at creating incentives to adopt policies barring vending machines in elementary and middle schools. Knowing schools' profits is a first step.

"If we're not prepared to move forward this session with hard figures, I wouldn't push it forward on a guess," Curtis said. "But if we could get concrete information . . . I would not be opposed to moving it forward this session."

Jones unsuccessfully has carried bills to curtail vending machine junk-food offerings in past years.

It is uncertain where information from an audit, if approved, will lead her.

"Likely down the road, I may look at something (in) physical activity . . . P.E. specialists that are trained," Jones said.

"I'll continue to be an advocate for this. I think it is the most cost-effective way, and the right thing to do, to teach our kids these important (healthy lifestyles) skills. There are many parents teaching this at home, yet sending kids to school, and they're face-to-face with rows of vending machines. They're being marketed to in tax-supported institutions in our schools."