Flash in the Pan 

A soda a day…

On May 3, the nation’s biggest soft drink companies agreed to voluntarily pull their sweetened beverages from elementary school vending machines and cafeterias. This decision came at the behest of activist groups, scientists and educators claiming, with support from a growing body of evidence, that pop contributes to childhood obesity, osteoporosis and diabetes.

A recent Missoulian editorial pooh-poohed this development, complaining that “…if everyone were as concerned about what kids learn as what they eat and weigh, perhaps we’d see real progress in education.”

I think it’s irresponsible to imply that concern for student health impedes “real progress in education.” The same logic could be used to argue that school programs aiming to keep kids off drugs, or AIDS-free, work at the expense of real progress in education.

That sounds like a stretch, doesn’t it? Well, it’s a stretch the Missoulian editorial board seems willing to make: “The ruckus over soda pop, nutritional standards of school lunches and obesity can be lumped in with a vast array of school-based social work—from AIDS awareness to anti-drug campaigns—that has only the most tangential connection with education.”

Clearly, the debate on soft drinks in schools is rooted, at least in part, in competing definitions of education, and what one believes schools are for. The educational values assumed by this editorial seem to forget that the brain is connected to the body.

“We have trouble worrying as much about what goes into kids’ bellies as we do about what goes into their heads,” reads the editorial. “Schools exist for one reason, and it isn’t for eating.”

Is that to suggest that schools don’t exist for extracurricular activities either, like choir, drama, home economics or football? A recent study concluded that female athletes who drink soft drinks daily are three times as likely to suffer broken bones. Do broken bones impede “real progress in education?”

Another study found that for each additional soft drink a child consumes per day, the child’s chance of becoming overweight increases by 60 percent. Over the last two decades, obesity rates have doubled among children and tripled in adolescents. Nationwide, obesity is estimated to cost taxpayers $75 billion per year.

Meanwhile, a quarter of children ages 5 to 10 years show early warning signs for heart disease, such as elevated blood cholesterol or high blood pressure. And Type 2 diabetes can no longer be called “adult onset” diabetes because of rising rates in children. One study found the incidence of Type 2 diabetes in adolescents increased tenfold between 1982 and 1994.

But even if schools ignore the body, caffeine and sugar remain mind-altering substances. And while their initial buzz may stimulate the mind, these drugs can wreak havoc on classroom dynamics by sending energy levels soaring and then crashing.

I once taught high school science in a rough part of Boston. Soft drinks were standard in the hands of students as they walked the halls and sat in class—not unlike college students with their coffee cups. With or without their pop (in Boston they call it soda), my students could be as hyper as little kids, but with adult bodies. In this context, sugar-induced nap attacks were much more welcome than knife attacks on teachers.

Anyway, we’re not talking about high school here. We’re talking about elementary school, where little children go. Isn’t 6 years old a little young to be hooked on caffeine and sugar? These kids aren’t working two jobs, or having adolescent sex all night like my high-schoolers. Few teachers would confuse a classroom full of buzzing and crashing students with progress in education.

“Eliminating sweetened drinks from schools may send kids a symbolic signal about good nutrition…” reads the editorial, but “…it’s unlikely to even reduce them in kids’ diets.”

Can someone explain to me how decreasing the availability of soft drinks is unlikely to reduce their consumption? As for the symbolic signal…I think we currently send mixed signals by telling students one thing in health class and then showing them the opposite in hallway vending machines. If students see schools practicing what they preach, maybe they’ll believe it.

I’m starting to wonder if the Missoulian has signed one of those marketing agreements with Coca-Cola, like UM’s controversial exclusivity pact with the soft-drink giant. In this agreement, Coke gets exclusive rights to a sweetened beverage monopoly on campus, and UM gets an estimated $6.2 million between now and 2010.

I remember an advertisement the Missoulian ran a few years ago. Promoting the fact that you could buy your daily Missoulian at the McDonalds drive-thru—along with your supersized drink—the headline announced “Fast food for the mind.”

It’s no wonder the Missoulian editorial board doesn’t seem to have a problem encouraging folks to eat crap.

flash@flashinthepan.net

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