Selling students by the pound

Critics say the Sacramento school district’s nutrition task force hasn’t gone far or fast enough

The Health Education Council’s Melissa Guajardo says students shouldn’t be offered unhealthy choices on campus.

The Health Education Council’s Melissa Guajardo says students shouldn’t be offered unhealthy choices on campus.

Photo By Larry Dalton

“So, they would allow kids to be for sale for a little while longer?” Gary Ruskin said, pausing on the phone in disbelief. Four years ago, he led dozens of activists to successfully pressure the Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD) to reject a district-wide contract with Pepsi that would have given each of its schools $400,000 in exchange for turning their campuses into Pepsi billboards. Ruskin, a Commercial Alert spokesman, now finds many of his old allies slipping ranks. The district subsequently created the Child Nutrition and Physical Activity Advisory Committee (CNPAAC)—a task force of health experts, teachers, principals and parents—in order to figure out how to combat child obesity and improve the health of the district’s 50,000 students. Several of the committee’s members tentatively want to decrease the soda supply of five of the district’s campuses gradually, instead of removing soda cold turkey. “None of this is rocket science,” Ruskin quipped. “If the administration doesn’t understand that we have [a soda-related] obesity epidemic, they deserve to be fired!”

Last November, Melissa Guajardo, the Health Education Council’s nutrition project coordinator, also was not pleased after attending a poorly advertised CNPAAC public hearing at the Serna Center, at which the committee introduced itself to an audience of four. “The language in their policies don’t do anything,” said Guajardo in a subsequent phone interview. “There were no administrative regulations. … There is no way to operate with it.” The nutrition crusader, who believes the CNPAAC is dragging its feet, particularly was alarmed by the idea of gradually decreasing soda consumption. “You can’t have nutrition education and then offer (the students) unhealthy choices on campus,” she argued.

Critics like Guajardo maintain that the CNPAAC is responsible for leading the district in a battle against the sale of soft drinks and junk foods on its campuses and is not shooting straight. Several committee members counter that the decision-making process takes careful research as education budget cuts loom ahead. In a national climate recently heated by the American Academy of Pediatrics’ declaration that all soda must be removed from American schools in order to dent the national childhood-obesity rate of 15 percent, the question about what should go into students’ mouths isn’t likely to go away.

Last year, the state Legislature passed the California Childhood Obesity Prevention Act of 2003 (Senate Bill 677), prohibiting the sale of soda in elementary and middle schools beginning this July. The bill does not extend to high schools—because many lawmakers believe that young adults are mature enough to make their own choices—and no specific methods for enforcing the new policy have been set.

SCUSD Nutrition Services Director Marc Lemieux said his district is well ahead of the Senate bill, with only three middle and two high schools still selling soda. He also mentioned that 80 of his district’s campuses were voluntarily compliant with the state’s 2001 nutrition requirements for school lunches and vended snacks, long before they became law.

This new state policy arose from the Pupil Nutrition, Health and Achievement Act of 2001 (Senate Bill 19), which sought to improve the nutrition and physical-education curriculums of state schools. Included in SB 19 were school-lunch and vended-snack requirements: Juice beverages must be 50-percent fruit, and other snacks can contain no more than 35-percent calories from fat, 10-percent calories from saturated fat and 35-percent sugar by weight. To test the SB 19 policies, because the state currently cannot afford to implement them to all schools, the California Department of Education created the Linking Education, Activity and Food (LEAF) program the following year. The department awarded 18 schools across the state that undertook a LEAF pilot program $3.8 million in grants. SCUSD installed the LEAF program at Hiram W. Johnson High School, which received a $246,000 grant that was mainly spent on SB 19-compliant lunches and beverages.

As part of the LEAF program, the pilot schools formed their own CNPAACs to generate suggested changes to their schools’ curriculums by the deadline of last December. SCUSD’s committee began meeting regularly last January but has not finalized any recommendations for the school board yet, according to its chairman, Manny Hernandez. “Remember, this is a big district with 13,000-plus high-school students,” he said. “We can only take the committee as fast as we can. … We should have policies in time for September.” Hernandez also mentioned that these are difficult times, with the projected $27 million district budget shortfall and the possible closure of campuses.

Guajardo complained that the task force was not prepared to present its recommendations to SCUSD by December. Given the district’s recent election of a superintendent, M. Magdalena Carrillo Mejia, the CNPAAC decided to postpone its board presentation in December until January 22, when the committee members will explain themselves and their direction to their new leader. Lemieux said that was the reason for postponing the December deadline.

Hernandez said the approach of gradually decreasing soda in schools stemmed from the fear that an outright banning of soda machines would have negative fiscal effects. Both John F. Kennedy High School and Hiram W. Johnson High School suffered revenue losses since their soda-machine removals last summer, explained Hiram Johnson’s vice principal, Dustin Blank. “Our main challenge is to [reimburse] the losses with fund-raising that does not sell junk food,” he added. Hernandez is interested in renegotiating contracts with beverage companies like Coca-Cola so a district-wide contract could be devised to “phase in” healthy drinks for vending machines and snack bars. Hiram Johnson still maintains a long-term contract with Coca-Cola and has been switching over to company products like PowerAde during the transition.

The prospect of renegotiating beverage contracts and gradually shrinking the soda supply left CNPAAC members Hasan Hanks and Edye Kuyper unimpressed. “They’re trying to whitewash [the issue],” Hanks argued. He argued that the district-wide soda ban “should have happened a long time ago, with or without any [state grants or laws].” Kuyper also argued that many in her committee “chose not to make viable changes” in the soda-sale issue. Hanks and Kuyper are working on a formal recommendation for removing all sodas from the campuses.

In contrast, some CNPAAC members, such as Robert Benoit, believe soda bans are useless without the proper nutrition education. “Even if you take away all the soda machines, the kids will still come home to drink six-packs their parents bought,” Benoit, the parent of a C.K. McClatchy High School student, argued. “The school is a teaching institute, not a policing institute.”

CNPAAC will hold its next school-board presentation this Thursday, January 22, at 6:30 p.m. at Albert Einstein Middle School. The meeting will be open to the public, and you can also e-mail suggestions to the committee at