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Orange County | Dana Parsons

Banning Soda Machines on Campuses Won't Solve This Weighty Problem

April 12, 2002|Dana Parsons

I visited my high school a few years ago in good ol' Omaha and was dismayed to see they'd torn out the old lockers, reconfigured the classrooms and, in short, remodeled the whole dadgum place. I prefer that things stay the same, even at the scene of my most tortured teenage moments.

As jarring as those changes were, the biggest shocker was the vending machines in the student commons area. Soda pop machines on campus? Inside the school?

During my high school days in the mid-1960s, vending machines on campus would have been about as likely as slot machines. Drink a Coke at school? Uh, yeah; how about a little Jack Daniel's to go with it?

The whole point is, I'm really old. Soda vending machines have been fixtures on high school campuses for many years, sort of like the teachers. You probably can't find an Orange County high school that doesn't have them.

Some state legislators, however, want to turn back the clock to Nebraska 1967. While their intentions may be honorable, they're sounding as dated as I.

That is, it may be a bit late to put the Coke back in the can.

"The reality is that teenagers drink pop," Los Alamitos High School Principal Dan Brooks says, "and if they can't get it on campus, they will be bringing it on campus anyway. Not having vending machines is not going to stop them from drinking pop on campus."

I called Los Alamitos on purpose. It's hard to make the argument that soda pop is corrupting its young, since the school long has been considered top-drawer academically, athletically and in after-school offerings.

No one attributes that to drinking Coke (with which the district has an exclusive contract for the high school campus), but apparently drinking Coke isn't undermining whatever it is they do over there, either.

The serious note to strike is that the several Coke machines around the 2,800-student campus generate revenue for various academic, athletic and extracurricular teams. Brooks estimates that the machines pour out more than $15,000 a year.

That's only part of the reason Brooks isn't a fan of the proposed legislation, which would increase the tax on sodas and other sweetened drinks and give most of the money to schools to defray their vending-machine losses. The bill's supporters argue that too many California kids are overweight, and they say the availability of pop and junk food on campus is part of the problem.

I may be wrong, but I don't get the impression Brooks is out to undermine the health of his student body.

"We've tried healthy foods," he says. "Our cafeteria staff is very supportive in offering more nutritious foods, and they stock it, and the kids won't buy it. It sits there and rots and we lose money."

Teens apparently dislike fruits and yogurt as much as pop quizzes and Saturday detentions. What they do like, Brooks says, are pizza, hamburgers, chicken sandwiches, tacos and burritos. And Coke.

Brooks' other argument is that teens who want a tasty carbo after a day in the salt mines (he didn't say it quite that way) will leave campus to get it, then return. With so many students staying until 4 or 5 o'clock for practices or rehearsals, he says it's ultimately safer and saner to let students buy sodas on campus than off.

As a lifetime soda freak who's not getting better with age, I'd love to counsel the students on the perils of Pepsi. I'll defer, however, to their parents. That's what the Legislature should do, too, after a Senate committee's advancement of the bill on a 7-3 vote.

Sure, it would be nice if California kids drank more milk, but until the Legislature makes that mandatory, it probably won't happen.

The bill's supporters want to portray the schools as enablers of the students' soft-drink habit, and maybe they are. But only banning sodas on campus would solve the problem, and legislators aren't considering that--are they?

With lots to worry about, soda pop isn't one of Brooks' biggies. "I tend to think kids are going to do what they're going to do," he says, "and you can't legislate that away."

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Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He may be reached by calling (714) 966-7821 or writing to The Times' Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to dana.parsons@latimes.com.

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