This entire debacle demonstrates the lunacy of draconian efforts to discourage childhood obesity. Truth and Consequences

By George Hawley

Five months after banishing "junk food" from their premises, Los Angeles public schools have stumbled upon a remarkable discovery: children won't spend their allowance money on carrot sticks and broccoli. Banning soda also had another, equally predictable result: the soft drink companies ended sponsorship deals that had previously brought campuses tens of thousands of dollars.

Apparently not anticipating this rather obvious consequence, the Los Angeles Unified School District is now faced with a serious decline in revenue. The soda ban alone has cost San Fernando Valley schools at least $300,000 since the beginning of 2004.

The schools apparently believed they could make just as much money by selling wrapping paper and "healthy snacks." This gross miscalculation has sent sales spiraling down by as much as 60 percent and is costing some schools as much as $1,000 per week. Some student stores have seen monthly revenues drop from $18,000 to $6,000.

To make matters worse, bureaucratic red tape has kept most snack choices off the shelves, waiting to be labeled "healthy" by the school district's food police.  Frozen yogurt and fruit juice slushes were recently pulled for that very reason.

Nevertheless, school officials can take pride in the great service they are doing for the community's children — by encouraging the strenuous exercise it takes to carry their own snacks from home. Yes, it turns out that children have outsmarted school officials by obtaining their cookies, candy and soft drinks outside of school and "smuggling" them onto the premises in their lunches.

The ban has also nurtured students' entrepreneurial spirit. When the ban was first enacted, one high school student enthusiastically informed the Los Angeles Daily News, "I'm gonna bring sodas and start selling them — underground sodas!"

Feeling the pinch from the declining sales are extra-curricular programs, which are now trying to find new sources of funds. Ironically, by losing soda sponsorships, schools may have to cut sports programs — a key means of reducing childhood obesity.

There is no evidence that even suggests banning soda from schools will make a dent in obesity. A recent study by Virginia Tech's Center for Food and Nutrition Policy (CFNP) published in the International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition discovered that "among the beverage alternatives, carbonated soft drinks are the second or third choice of young children, depending on race. On average, young boys and girls drink 6.6 oz. and 6.2 oz. of carbonated soft drinks per day, which represents about 4 percent of total daily energy intake." What's more, such data is "consistent with previously reported USDA findings," according to the study, and that average "amount of caloric intake" attributed to soft drinks "might easily be balanced with even a modest level of physical activity during recess, physical education classes at school, or after-school activity programs."

In an effort to cut this miniscule source of calories, schools are putting indispensable after-school programs (marching bands, science clubs, sports teams, etc.) at risk, including programs that provide children with exercise.

"It really irritates me that they did that," said Lori Baker, president of the booster club at Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies, in an interview with the Los Angeles Daily News. "So many of the parents just don't want to be responsible. Bottom line, you see these kids, yes, many of them are obese, but they didn't get that way from buying a soda at school."

This entire debacle demonstrates the lunacy of draconian efforts to discourage childhood obesity. If Los Angeles school children are overweight, it's not because of the occasional candy bar or soft drink bought from a vending machine — products that are readily available off-campus anyway. Obesity cannot be resolved by restricting choice, especially when doing so forces schools to cut the very programs that are an important part of the solution.

George Hawley is a Research Associate at the Center for Individual Freedom. He is a senior at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Washington. December 9, 2004
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