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Mission: Phase out the fizz

Robinson High offers drink machines sans soda. Other schools may follow.

By ELISABETH DYER
Published August 11, 2006


INTERBAY - There's an experiment happening in the halls of Robinson High School. A dozen Pepsi-brand machines arrived this week stocked with Gatorade, Tropicana juice and water.

Nothing fizzy: no Pepsi, no Mountain Dew. Not even diet.

The new offerings are part of increased efforts to reduce childhood obesity and national mandates to rid schools of soda. The district plans to compare sales from Robinson's soda-free machines with sales at other high schools, which earn money from soda.

"Hopefully, if things go well, we're going to roll it out to all the schools," said purchasing manager Willie Campbell.

On Monday, freshman Travis Herndon paid $1 for a Kiwi-Strawberry Propel Fitness Water from one of the new machines.

"I think it's better than soda," he said. "It doesn't make you as hyper in class, which can tend to get you in trouble."

Banning soda is a step in the right direction, said Jennifer Katz, a dietitian who coaches families on children's nutritional needs at her practice on MacDill Avenue. Soda has empty calories that can lead to obesity.

"Vending machines have undermined many nutritious foods and drinks provided by school lunch programs," Katz said. "Soda has replaced many nutrients children need such as calcium, vitamin C and just water."

The district's $50-million, 12-year contract with PepsiCo, signed in 2003, requires that at least half of vending machine drink selections in middle and high schools be carbonated.

Previously, individual schools had negotiated their own contracts with beverage providers, among them Pepsi and Coca-Cola.

District officials are renegotiating with PepsiCo to meet new federal and district requirements, which push schools to reduce or eliminate carbonated beverages, Campbell said.

Sodas aren't sold in elementary schools, except in teacher lounges.

Under the district's contract, Pepsi pays the district $7.5-million over 12 years plus at least $15,000 a year to each high school.

Middle schools receive $4,000, and elementary schools get $1,000.

Pepsi also provides amenities, such as football scoreboards with Pepsi advertising.

The drink company gives each school 40 percent of all carbonated beverage sales. Noncarbonated drinks bring in less. Most district high schools make $25,000 to $35,000 a year, Campbell said.

Leto High School in Town 'N Country decided to keep soda even after its contract with Coke ended this month.

"I didn't want them to go into complete withdrawal," said former principal Daniel Bonilla. "These kids are used to getting carbonated drinks."

However, Leto used the opportunity to scale back the amount of soda sold in each vending machine.

"We did mix up the product more," said Bonilla, now principal at Jefferson. "We're putting in more Gatorade, more water."

At Robinson, students aren't used to having vending machines, principal Laura Zavatkay said. The school didn't have any when she came there in January 2004.

Her predecessor, Kevin McCarthy, removed the machines, eschewing the $33,000 they generated.

"He thought it was wrong to offer kids such a nonnutritious food item and then take a kickback from it," his wife, Joan, wrote in an e-mail. McCarthy died in November 2003.

An occasional soda drinker herself, Zavatkay decided to bring back a few Coca-Cola machines.

"Vending is a key piece of income into schools," she said. It has paid for facility needs and incentives for perfect attendance and high performance.

Barry Driks, whose daughter is a freshman in Robinson's new International Baccalaureate program, lauded the school for dealing with health and nutrition issues.

"Not having sodas in the schools would be more of a plus than a negative," said Driks, who lives in Westchase.

Robinson's new assistant principal, Marcia Monk, who has a master's degree in exercise physiology, says choosing healthy options now can lead to better lifetime choices.

At her last post at East Bay High School, she often saw students downing sodas before morning classes.

But Monk, who shuns soda herself, also heard from students who were angry when machines ran out of water.

She expects the nonfizzy drinks will be a hit.

"As long as it's cold and refreshing, it doesn't have to be Pepsi," she said.

Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Elisabeth Dyer can be reached at edyer@sptimes.com or 813 226-3321.

[Last modified August 10, 2006, 09:01:16]


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