fixed on Seattle suit over sodas
by Marguerite Higgins, Washington Times, July 14, 2003
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Local school systems are examining ways to offer more nutritious
choices in their soda machines as a Seattle school board faces
litigation over a soft-drink contract.
New York and Los Angeles recently eliminated soft drinks from
their vending machines, but school districts in the Washington
area are waiting for Thursday's vote by the Seattle school
system before making any substantial changes to their beverage
George Washington University law professor John Bhanzaf III
several weeks ago sent a legal notice to the seven members of
the Seattle Board of Education, warning they would be sued by a
group of trial lawyers if they voted to extend an
exclusive-rights contract with Coca-Cola Co. Inc.
Mr. Bhanzaf, who has spurred obesity-litigation efforts,
contends school officials are contributing to childhood obesity
by selling sugar-laden beverages in vending machines without
offering healthier alternatives like water and 100-percent fruit
The Prince George's County school board is waiting on the vote
before making any changes in its soft-drink vending machines,
which serve some 52,000 students at middle and high schools.
Elementary schools in the Washington area do not have soda
Spokeswoman Athena Ware said Prince George's County is somewhat
safeguarded from any lawsuits because it doesn't use
exclusive-rights contracts and doesn't operate vending machines
during school hours; students may buy drinks from the machines
only during extracurricular events.
Larry Bowers, chief operating officer for Montgomery County
Public Schools, did not rule out food changes at county schools.
The system recently took doughnuts off school menus, but schools
with soft-drink machines continue to sell soda, sports drinks,
fruit juice and water.
"There may be more significant changes coming down the road,"
Mr. Bowers said.
A health committee for Arlington County Public Schools is
reviewing a range of changes in nutrition, including eliminating
soft drinks from schools, said Susan Robinson, assistant
superintendent for finance and management services.
Ms. Robinson said the review is not a response to legal threats.
About 90 percent of U.S. middle and high schools operate soda
machines during school hours, with fewer than 10 percent of
those school districts using exclusive-rights contracts,
according to the National Soft Drinks Association, a D.C. trade
Loudoun County school officials also are closely following the
Seattle case. The county does not run vending machines during
"We're constantly changing the food services to be lower in fat
and offer healthy alternatives," spokesman Wade Byard said.
D.C. public school board member Tommy Wells of Wards 5 and 6
said the board would track soft-drink policy changes in other
cities. However, changing rules for soda machines was not at the
top of the priority list.
"We have a full plate" with the current budget crisis, Mr. Wells
Alexandria's T.C. Williams High School has made recent
health-based changes like offering water and Powerade, which has
half as much sugar, in its vending machines, said Barbara
Hunter, spokeswoman for the city's public schools.
"We try to stay ahead of the curve with nutrition issues," but
the vending-machine lawsuits are not a major issue for the
school district, Ms. Hunter said. T.C. Williams is the only
Alexandria school to have soft-drink machines.
Fairfax County's school board debated using exclusive-rights
contracts, but has no plans to change its soda policies, said
spokesman Paul Regnier. Soda machines are turned off during
school hours and offer water and juice.
Despite the changes, Sean McBride, spokesman for the National
Soft Drinks Association, said he did not expect school districts
to begin bans on soft drinks in response to threat of
But pressure from class-action lawsuits could push Seattle and
other school officials across the nation to ban soda from
vending machines, as Los Angeles County and New York have done.
Last year, the Los Angeles school board voted to phase out soft
drinks and sugar-laden beverages from machines that sell to some
New York school officials recently passed a measure that
eliminates soft drinks, hard candy and doughnuts.
At stake in Seattle is a five-year contract to exclusively sell
Coke products in the city's schools. The deal brings in $400,000
to fund extracurricular activities and field trips, said school
board President Nancy Waldman.
The panel delayed the vote until Thursday and is considering
changes like turning off vending machines during school hours,
designating three vending slots in each machine for water and
juice, and selling milk.
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