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Ed board delays decision on junk-food ban

Murray High students Penney Crosby, left, Amy Hansen, Mark Farmer and Stacey Marie Hansen discuss food choices Thursday.
Murray High students Penney Crosby, left, Amy Hansen, Mark Farmer and Stacey Marie Hansen discuss food choices Thursday.
Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News

A statewide junk food ban in school vending machines on Friday was still hanging over students' — but no longer, teachers' — heads, with the State Board of Education delaying action another month.

The board's finance committee, however, did decide to exempt teacher lounges from the junk-food ban.

"I want to thank them very much for understanding that teachers are adults and to respect that," said Elaine Tzourtzouklis, director of Wasatch UniServ, a Salt Lake, Tooele and Murray arm of the Utah Education Association. "Teachers will be delighted to know the state board does have faith that the teachers will do what's right for themselves and not give anything to the students they should not have."

But what about students?

A group of Murray High seniors this week had some questions, and praise, for the State Board of Education.

"I'm a health freak," student Stacey Marie Hansen said. "I think people should be able to get something healthy" if they forget food but don't want to brave long lunch lines that leave next to no time to sit down and eat.

"For a lot of people," student Mark Farmer said, motioning to vending machines full of chips, cookies and candy, "this is lunch."

Farmer nailed the reason behind the proposed ban, inspired by state child nutrition experts.

The state board proposes to ban junk food sales during the school day, and 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.

The board 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.

It also is requesting $1 million from the Legislature as a lost-revenues relief fund.

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

Still, Murray students acknowledge, a lot of people aren't going to like it.

"I know a lot of guys are going to be pretty upset about this change," Farmer said. "But for me, I say, way to go."

Student Penney Crosby also supports the state board's direction but questions whether some sodas should remain in machines. She says students with disabilities — her brother is among them — sometimes are rewarded in class with a chance to go to the machines and buy a Pepsi.

"It's their happy moment of the day," she said.

Board members Greg Haws and Mark Cluff would rather see the board's ban turn into recommendations that school districts can put in place, or not.

"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, at some high schools, are in the $25,000 range and fund student activities. Statewide, schools take in $3.75 million a year in vending machine sales, a legislative audit found last year.

The 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 offer those, plus low-calorie sports and carbonated drinks, in high schools by fall 2009. Swire Coca-Cola vice president of cold drink Raleigh Lockhart cited several steps taken toward that goal.

Still, upping nutrition has downed profits.

"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, executives 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.

"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."

But the board's finance committee ultimately voted to stay the course with a proposed ban. It also asked to more specific definitions on sugars, so as to not ban that contained in fruits, and what a faculty room is.

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