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Why Are We Selling Sugar Water to Students?

Florida Department of Education

The Florida Department of Education is currently considering new rules to limit sugar-filled and highly caffeinated drinks from elementary, middle and high schools. To understand the issue better, I'd like to present the four primary arguments against a change.

"Schools have made millions over the years through exclusive beverage contracts..."

That's true. Selling cans full of sugar water that rot teeth, increase obesity and raise the risk of diabetes is definitely profitable. From a purely financial perspective, we should put those drinks in every school and encourage students to drink up. While we're at it, maybe we should also look at decriminalizing drugs like marijuana or crack cocaine. If schools started selling drugs, they would make enormous profits. Who cares what it's doing to the students. We're talking cold, hard cash!

We don't do that because we have to draw a line somewhere. The only difference between hard drugs and sugar-filled drinks in a vending machine is time. Constant use of crack cocaine can kill or debilitate a person in a few months. Drinking "profitable" sugar-filled beverages can do the same thing, it just takes longer and you probably won't see the effects until after the student has graduated.

Schools don't have to make that decision. The truth is schools in California, Maine, Minnesota and Pennsylvania were able to fill funding gaps created when they limited or banned unhealthy soda sales. If the only choices a student can make are healthy ones, then that's the choice they'll make.

"If soda disappears, some school administrators are convinced students will still find a way to get their fizz fix."

It's true. Some students will bring drinks with them or leave campus to buy them. some underage students will find a way to purchase alcohol or cigarettes. Banning them on campus will not make them go away. Just because a student might get it somewhere else doesn't mean the school should provide it. Schools don't sell cigarettes or offer bottles of beer with lunch because kids "will still find a way to get their...fix." It's the school's responsibility to provide a healthy environment ON campus, and they're not doing that by allowing unhealthy sodas.

"Rules about drinks allowed in schools would be encroaching on freedom."

Society has decided that as people get older, they should be given more rights. We can get a driver's license at age 16. At 18, we're eligible to vote. We can choose to drink alcohol at 21. We're given more freedoms as we age because we've presumably learned more. Most beverage policies have different standards for elementary, middle and high school students. We believe the older students are educated enough to make better choices. Limiting a student's choices to healthier options ON CAMPUS is a far cry from denying anyone's right to buy a particular product.

If a student wishes to purchase a bottle of sugar-filled soda, they can walk into any grocery or convenience store and buy it anytime they want. They are also free to take those drinks into school with them if they choose. Students are allowed to make poor decisions, but school districts aren't obliged to offer those bad choices on campus.

"The reason kids are fatter than ever is because they're not getting enough exercise."

Yes, exercise is essential and kids today are getting far less than they did 30 years ago. But the number of calories they're taking in has also grown dramatically. Children are drinking twice as much soda in 2009 as they did in 1979. One 12 oz. can of Coca-Cola has 140 calories and 2/3 of the sugar a typical child should consume in an entire day. Just one can of soda daily will pack on 14 more pounds a year.

Removing unhealthy soft drinks from schools won't magically transform them into enclaves of fit and happy kids. But it won't take away children's freedom or destroy school budgets either. It's just the right thing to do.

UPDATE: Unfortunately, the new regulations we proposed were never put through. The entrenched interests were too great for this round of the battle. Things will change; we'll have to keep working on it.

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Updated 11/15/2014