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Students Learn to Dispense With Sodas

Healthier choices now fill school vending machines in L.A., with more to come.

February 12, 2004|Jean Merl | Times Staff Writer

Nibbling at the ice cream cone he said was his lunch, eyes fixed longingly on the campus vending machine where the Pepsi used to be, Yan Popkov revealed himself to be an unhappy young man.

"I hate it!" the 14-year-old Hollywood High freshman said of the Los Angeles Unified School District's month-old ban on sugary sodas. "Soda is basically the only thing I drink. It's the only reason I'm up."

Nearby in the 3,100-student high school's bustling lunch court, sophomore Hakob Krishchyan expressed a different view.

"It's OK with me," said the 16-year-old, surveying the vending machine offerings of Snapple and Switch fruit drinks and Crystal Geyser bottled water. "I like juice."

Nearly 750,000 students at more than 700 campuses in the nation's second-largest school district are adjusting to life without Coke, Sprite or Mr. Pibb -- at least during school hours.

Students can still bring soft drinks from home. Or they can zip off campus at lunchtime -- permitted at some high schools -- to score a Slurpee or a Red Bull.

Los Angeles and California -- along with Texas and New York City -- are at the forefront of a national movement to provide healthier fare for students. The effort is fueled by concerns over an alarming increase in childhood obesity and accompanying health risks such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

Oakland and San Francisco also have bans in place, and an anti-soda policy will take effect July 1 at all California public elementary and middle schools. At that same time, Los Angeles schools will be tightening their junk food policies, restricting fatty items such as candy and chips.

At L.A. schools, the sodas had vanished from vending machines and student stores by the time youngsters returned from winter break, replaced gradually with drinks that met new district guidelines.

Fruit-based drinks containing at least 50% juice and no added sweeteners are acceptable, as are drinking water and vitamin waters that contain no more than 42 grams of added sweetener per 20-ounce serving. Milk, chocolate milk, soy milk, rice milk and "similar dairy or nondairy" products also are acceptable, as are electrolyte replacement beverages such as Gatorade.

Caffeinated drinks -- coffee, tea and chai -- and those with herbal or some other supplements -- are forbidden.

Getting ready for the Jan. 1 start of the soda ban, Los Angeles schools scrambled to sign new contracts for healthier alternatives with vendors -- including Pepsi and Coca-Cola.

But principals at some cash-strapped schools said they were worried about a decline in the vending machine revenue that helps pay for athletic programs and some other student activities.

A spot check found mixed financial results. At Columbus Middle School in Canoga Park, for example, business at the vending machines was nearly as brisk as ever as students took quickly to the new offerings. But at some high schools, revenue appeared to be down by 30% to 50%, although some principals expected sales to bounce back.

Los Angeles Unified isn't stopping at soft drinks. Starting July 1, it will begin enforcing strict nutritional standards on other fare sold in student stores, vending machines and at school-hours fundraisers. (Cafeterias are regulated by separate federal guidelines.) No more than 35% of calories can come from fat, for example, and portion sizes of such goodies as muffins and French fries will be sharply cut back.

The prospect of that, on top of the soda ban, had Hollywood High abuzz with teenage angst.

"Oh, no!" groaned April Avington, 14, a freshman in the school's Performing Arts Magnet Center. "That's not cool. We need our sugar."

Classmate Daronn Gooden, also 14, thought he saw an opportunity. "I will bring sodas and candy to school and sell them underground," he said, laughing.

In the lunch area, a vending machine selling healthy drinks stood next to one dispensing candy and cookies. The candy machine was doing a brisk business, while many students ignored its companion offering various flavors of canned Snapple for $1.25 and Switch drinks for just 50 cents (an introductory special). Another machine offered Gatorade, also for $1.25.

"That's really expensive. We can't really afford that," said sophomore Eduardo Elizarraras, 17. "I would like to buy it, but look at the price."

Pepsi used to be sold in machines for $1 a bottle or 75 cents a can. The machines now offer some water and juices for $1.

Brian Reyes, 17, a junior, said he was thinking of petitioning the school board to bring the sodas back.

"Students do better at school if they are comfortable," Reyes said. "And soda makes a lot of us comfortable. We are used to it, and it is disturbing" not to have it.

In the school's leadership class, senior Lesslie Rodriguez, 18, said she was upset because the restrictions could cut into revenue for student government and other activities. Besides, she said, seniors with good grades are allowed off campus for lunch "and we can buy anything we want then. So the school loses."

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