During the 2011-12 school year, more than 430,000 soft drinks were sold from 139 vending machines based in 28 school facilities, according to the Fairfax County Public School system. The machines included Pepsi and Coca-Cola products.
If all 430,000 sodas were purchased by students, the average consumption rate would be less than one soft drink per student a month.
Soda machines are only turned on after school hours, and during weekends and holidays, according to school officials.
While the consumption numbers may seem low, parent advocates for healthier diets say having the machines in schools sends the wrong message to students.
“[E]ven if it is not available during the school day, it’s still there, advertised all day,” said JoAnne Hammermaster, president of the parent advocacy group Real Food For Kids. Hammermaster has a seventh-grader at Kilmer Middle School and a freshman at Marshall High School.
Real Food For Kids, which was founded in 2011, began with a look at the ingrediants in school lunches.
However, Hammermaster said, “We’ve always said at some point we wanted to talk about vending machines. We believe there is no need for sodas in schools.”
About 70 percent of sodas sold through vending machines in schools are regular soft drinks. The other 30 percent are diet or zero calorie drinks. Hammermaster said no matter their sugar content, the fizzy drinks are bad for digestion and need to go.
School Board member Ryan McElveen (At-large) is leading the effort to remove soda sales in schools. A 2004 graduate of Marshall High School, McElveen says the soda vending machine policies today have not changed since his time in high school.
“I don’t want to take away the [vending] machines. I want to substitute [sodas] with something healthier,” said the school board member, adding that booster clubs and student organizations sometimes sell sodas outside of the vending option. “We are not currently allowed to sell sodas [through vending] in our schools during the school day. The machines are turned off until around 2:30 p.m. [or when students are dismissed from schools for the day].”
Promoting alternative vending choices in schools, McElveen said, would help promote similar behaviors for students outside of schools.
“In my opinion, to teach kids how to live healthy lives, we need to offer them options,” he said.
Parents advocating for healthier school diets are joining McElveen’s efforts. “I think [removing soda] is a great thing ... Sodas are one example of something that isn’t terrible but it doesn’t provide you with any nutrition,” said McLean resident and parent Rick Barnard, who served on Superintendent Jack D. Dale’s Nutrition Task Force — a panel of parents, citizens and staff — in 2011.
Barnard said the panel focused primarily on the content of school-provided lunches, but added that sodas and vending of treats should be part of the discussion.
He became involved with student nutrition a few years ago after seeing national movements like First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign and celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s show “Jamie’s School Dinners,” which promotes better nutrition.
“All of these things sort of started happening at the exact same time,” Barnard said, adding that similar trends were seen in Fairfax County.
Schools receive 50 percent of the profits from vending machines as part of a profit agreement with the vender. FCPS’ Food and Nutrition Services department donates a portion of their profits toward high school sports scoreboard repairs.
In fiscal 2012, the schools received $114,604, which included $82,682 from the schools’ share of soda sale profits and $31,976 donated from Food and Nutrition Services.
“[S]oda consumption among our youth is a huge concern,” said Alexandria resident and Hollin Meadows Elementary mother Mary Porter. “Sodas have addictive properties. They are dehydrating and they can disrupt the hormones that regulate the body’s messages of hunger and satiation. They are junk food ... The only benefit to them in an academic setting is generating revenue, which in FCPS goes back to Food and Nutrition Services or the individual sports/booster teams that have contracts.”
Porter says removing sodas is an opportunity to bolster nutrition literacy among students.
Herndon mother Heather Metz agreed.
“What children are taught early on stays with them,” said Metz, who has children attending Armstrong Elementary and Herndon High School. “Kids are constantly exposed to marketing and have overworked parents who may not be cooking healthful meals at home, making nutrition education in schools extremely important. I would like to see schools set the best example possible.”
McElveen said the next step for the soda debate will be gaining community input and discussions with fellow School Board members. School officials are currently reviewing food services within the school system.