Commentary | Education

Lessons—Schools’ Chosen Cure for Money Ills: A Sugar Pill

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These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.

[ THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES ON AUGUST  21, 2002 ]

Schools’ chosen cure for money ills: A sugar pill

By Richard Rothstein

San Antonio — At the National PTA’s convention here this summer, delegates strolled through an exhibit hall of booths that promoted commercial products.

At most educational meetings, the booths are manned by textbook publishers, software companies and testing organizations. But the tone of the PTA’s exhibit hall was established by candy companies that distributed free samples and urged PTA chapters to sell sweets to raise money. Along with Mars, Nestlé, Hershey and other confectioners, there was a Sugar Association booth whose brochures refuted the “myths” that sugar causes hyperactivity, obesity, diabetes or tooth decay. “If your child loves sweet treats, there’s no need to worry,” the literature stated.

Shirley Igo, the National PTA president, said that when schools could not pay for their instructional programs, PTA’s help fill the gap, and that candy sales were one way to do so. Two years ago, investigators from the General Accounting Office, an investigative arm of Congress, visited 19 schools and found that in all of them merchandise sales helped finance programs like school assemblies, field trips, teacher training and, in one case, a teacher’s salary. In other districts, such sales as well as royalties from vending machines pay for after-school programs, arts and theater classes, instructional materials and computers.

Athletic teams and extracurricular clubs also raise money this way. Coaches have been known to tie grades to meeting candy sale quotas, or to threaten students with loss of the chance to participate in sports or to qualify for varsity letters if sales fall short. Barry Sackin is vice president of the American School Food Service Association, an organization of school lunch employees. Mr. Sackin said that when he was in charge of school cafeterias in Anaheim, Calif., he could always tell when a team or club had a fund-raising drive because regular lunch sales plummeted.

The Sugar Association is correct that candy alone does not cause disease. In moderation and balanced with lots of exercise, sweets can be part of a balanced diet. But using candy to plug holes in school budgets discourages moderation, especially in children who do not exercise enough. Nutritional experts say that eating candy accustoms young children to sweet tastes and leads to demands for added sweetening in all foods. Sugar, or substitutes like fructose, should contribute no more than one-tenth of the calories in a child’s diet, but it typically exceeds that.

An even bigger danger to health than fund-raising drives is the placement of vending machines in middle and high schools selling candy, high-fat snacks and soda. Legislation perennially before Congress would authorize the secretary of agriculture to prohibit, on nutritional grounds, such sales in schools. But the bills have been stymied. Lobbyists for soft drink and sugar producers have fought the bills, but so have the National School Boards Association and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, whose members say that the harm done by underfinanced educational programs can be greater than that done to health.

Some state legislators have tried to restrict sales of high-fat and high-sugar foods, but such proposals have usually been defeated by lobbyists and school officials. In Texas, a new rule will ban vending machines from the immediate vicinity of school lunchrooms but imposes no restrictions on placement elsewhere in schools.

The General Accounting Office noted the rapid growth of contracts that give a single beverage company exclusive rights to sell drinks and to advertise on school property. The contracts are especially dangerous because soft drink bottlers have increased the average container size, with 20 ounces now common. This gives children many more calories than they need and also encourages young people to drink less milk than they should, by substituting sodas and high-calorie sports drinks designed for athletes, not sedentary students.

Are there alternatives? Researchers from the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health placed healthier low-fat snacks, like pretzels, in school vending machines and then manipulated the prices. As the low-fat snacks became cheaper, students bought more of them, suggesting teenagers can be encouraged to shift their purchases to healthier foods. But this would mean lower profit margins on the sales.

The promotion of unhealthy foods to schoolchildren will most likely increase because the public wants better instructional programs but will not provide the tax dollars to pay for them. The well-being of children is both nutritional and educational. Policies now encourage schools and their PTA’s to sacrifice one of these for the other, with candy and soft drink companies all too willing to help.

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