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Action delayed on junk food ban in schools

The state school board's hard line against junk food in school vending machines momentarily blurred some Friday, and final action on a proposed sweets ban action was delayed at least another month.

Friday, board members Greg Haws and Mark Cluff, in the name of local control, sought to turn the proposed ban into a recommendation for school districts instead.

"I will not support a rule that usurps local control," Cluff said. "I think we as a state should recommend (guidelines) ... but I think it should be a recommendation to the local school boards to implement as they see fit."

The comments followed a presentation from Coke and Pepsi executives, representing the American Beverage Association, plus apparent flak from school districts fearing a shrunken wallet.

Vending machine revenues fund student activities; high schools have reported annual revenues in the $25,000 range. Statewide, schools take in $3.75 million a year in vending machine sales, a legislative audit found last year.

But the State Board of Education's Finance Committee ultimately voted against turning the ban into a recommendation before running the proposed ban by the full board of education later that morning.

However, rather than taking final action Friday, the committee asked to more specific definitions on sugars, so as to not ban that contained in fruits, and what a faculty room is.

The latter could thrill teachers statewide.

That's because faculty lounges in public schools would be exempt from the proposed vending machine junk food ban, allowing teachers to buy a Coke or Pepsi in between classes if they so choose.

Including faculty vending machines in the ban drew the ire of the director of Wasatch UniServ, a Salt Lake, Murray and Tooele branch of the Utah Education Association teachers union.

The state board proposes to ban junk food sales during the school day, limit vending machine fare to 300 calories, 35 percent fat, 10 percent of total calories from saturated fat and beverage sizes to 20 ounces. It also would ban trans fats.

It also is setting up rules for vending contracts, which would have to be approved by school boards, and for publicly reporting how vending profits are spent. Those proposed regulations are in line with recommendations from a legislative audit last year.

The proposal aims to battle rising childhood obesity rates, and keep the schools' message on nutrition and healthy lifestyles consistent.

"We're pitting lost revenue against children's health, and really, what's most important?" said board vice chairwoman Janet Cannon said in the committee meeting.

But the American Beverage Association, with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, last year approved guidelines to offer only water and juice, in smaller serving sizes, in elementary- and middle-school vending machines, and seeks to add only low-calorie sports and carbonated drinks for high schools by fall 2009. Swire Coca-Cola vice president of cold drink Raleigh Lockhart cited several steps taken toward that goal. While healthier for kids, schools wallets have gotten thinner.

"I think the realities are, we're going to see some sizeable decreases in funding (for schools), potentially half or even more," said Paul Van Slooten, vice president and general manager of the Pepsi Bottling Group's Salt Lake City Market Unit. But as the trend toward sports drinks and vitamin water forges ahead, revenues could build back up, he said.

Van Slooten asked the board to adopt his group's recommendations as the health and wellness policy for Utah schools, giving the beverage association more power to bring its ideas to fruition.

Haws said snack food companies, which were not part of the beverage group's movement, would come on board with their example. He said he opposes the state board's proposed direction, and praised the businesses' and local school districts' self-governance.

"We see one industry that's stepping forward and self-governing ... (our proposal) says we don't trust them, support them, instead of saying thank you for these efforts," Haws said. "They are taking a financial risk here."