The Pepsi Generation
By KENT FISCHER
© St. Petersburg Times,
Chip Wichmanowski is the executive director of the Pasco Education Foundation, but everyone calls him "Pepsi One."
It fits. Part of his job is overseeing the Pasco County school district's contract with PepsiCo, which gives the sodamaker exclusive rights to market its beverages to the district's 48,000 students.
"Pepsi," Wichmanowski said, "really is a one-stop shop for all your beverage needs."
If Wichmanowski sounds like a commercial for the world's second-largest sodamaker, it's not without reason. Pasco's contract with Pepsi has netted the district nearly $2-million since 1999, money that has paid for everything from scholarships to computers to athletic equipment.
While Pepsi is pouring money into Pasco's coffers, students and teachers are pouring Pepsi products down their throats, in ever-increasing amounts. The year before the district signed its deal with Pepsi, Pasco schools sold about 30,000 cases of soda, juice and other beverages. By the second year of the deal, sales had jumped 75 percent, much of it soda and high-sugar fruit and sport drinks.
Health officials are aghast. They fear that schools have made it too easy for kids to consume "liquid candy." At risk, they say, is the long-term health of growing young bodies whose soda consumption nationally has increased 300 percent since 1981.
Schools "have found a money-making opportunity, and they're taking advantage of it," said Clara Lawhead, president of the Florida Dietetic Association and an official with the Pasco County Health Department. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that we're on the wrong track."
The track is well traveled. In the past six years, about 250 school districts, including Pasco's and Hernando's, have signed exclusive rights agreements with soft drink companies. (Principals negotiate their own deals in Citrus, Hillsborough and Pinellas.)
There are signs, however, that the boom may be over:
Philadelphia schools recently turned down an offer from Coca-Cola worth an estimated $43-million.
Madison, Wis., the first district to sign an exclusive contract, became the first to abandon one when the School Board last fall declined to renew its $600,000-contract with Coke.
The San Francisco school district recently passed a "no commercialism" policy that bars, among other things, exclusive beverage contracts.
Sacramento, Calif., schools turned down a $2-million deal with Pepsi when its board decided to decrease the amount of junk food available to kids.
Three months ago, one of the big boys broke rank.
Coca-Cola, which generates more than 1 percent of its North American sales from schools, said it wants its independent bottlers out of the exclusive contract business. Coke declared classrooms commercial "clean zones" and will replace its school vending machine fronts with non-corporate pictures and posters.
"We want to ensure that our presence in schools is something people are comfortable with," said Coke spokeswoman Pauline Howes. "We're trying to address the concerns that people have about health and nutrition and what's available to kids in schools."
Pasco County's contract with Pepsi allows the sodamaker to install one vending machine for every 100 kids in each of Pasco's 17 middle and high schools; there are now 250 machines in Pasco schools, up from 180 when the contract took effect.
The machines, which are off limits to elementary school children, offer everything from juice to water to several kinds of soda pop.
Hudson High earned $23,000 in commissions in the most recent contract year, "my biggest source of disposable income," according to principal Greg Wright.
He has used the soda proceeds to pay for field trips, awards banquets and teaching supplies. Most of it, though, goes to prop up the school's athletic teams, which recently were as much as $25,000 in the red.
"That (soda money) got me above water," Wright said of the athletic budget.
School officials note that there were soft drinks in school long before the Pepsi deal.
Before the Pepsi contract "there wasn't a school in our district that didn't have vending machines," said Wichmanowski, the district's Pepsi point man. "We're not doing anything different than before. All we're doing now is saying 'You must sell Pepsi products, and we're making more money doing it. It's a no-brainer."
Kids have noticed one change. Some teachers allow them to bring their drinks into the classroom.
"All of my teachers let us as long as we don't spill it," said Hudson High student Joie Vitiello, 15.
School officials defend the Pepsi contract by saying that soda isn't the only beverage that kids purchase. They buy an awful lot of iced tea, fruit juice, water and sport drinks that are better for kids than soda, said Wichmanowski.
Pepsi's iced tea, for example, contains nearly as much sugar and calories as soda does. Most of the "fruit juice" the district sells is just 10 percent juice. A 20-ounce bottle of it contains nearly 63 grams of sugar and 250 calories -- almost identical to that of a 20-ounce Pepsi. The sport drinks are also laden with sugar and calories, nutritionists say.
"It's all the same," said Betty Davis, a registered dietitian with Bayonet Point Regional Medical Center in Hudson. "It's all just empty calories. They're not getting the vitamins or the minerals that they'll get from milk or juice."
The district, though, doesn't track how much of its sales are soda, juice or water.
Pepsi does. When the St. Petersburg Times asked Pasco's Pepsi representative for a breakdown of the district's sales, he agreed but called back a day later to say his boss wouldn't let him release the figures.
Kids said most of the sales are soda.
"Juice, water, soda -- you've got different choices," said Hudson student Jessica Eaton, "but most of the kids just buy Pepsi."
State rules used to prohibit Florida schools from selling soda until one hour after the last lunch was served. But in 1999, Gov. Jeb Bush and the Cabinet erased that rule, declaring the state should not dictate what schools can and can't sell to kids.
"Students who want to have a soft drink with lunch will bring them in their knapsacks. It's as simple as that," Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher said at the time.
It's hardly that simple, according to Lawhead, of the Dietetic Association.
Studies have documented the nation's epidemic of child obesity, which doubled between 1984 and 1994. One found that soft drinks contribute more calories to overweight teens than they do to other children. The average teenage boy consumes 19 ounces of soda a day, up from 7 ounces in 1977.
For teenage girls, the stakes are higher. Girls build 98 percent of their bone mass by age 18, and if they don't consume enough calcium during that time they can't catch up later. Studies have shown that girls who drink soda tend to drink less milk, increasing their chances of osteoporosis later in life.
Then there's the hypocrisy factor.
Lawhead said she doesn't understand how schools can teach kids about good nutrition and healthy lifestyle choices while simultaneously pushing high-sugar junk drinks.
But Lawhead doesn't put all the blame on schools and their exclusive beverage contracts. If the state did a better job of funding education, school districts wouldn't have to resort to such money-grubbing tactics, she said.
"It's all driven by money, but it's too easy to leave the schools holding the bag on this one," Lawhead said. "This is an issue for the entire community. Let's find a way to raise money that doesn't put at risk the bones and teeth of our children."
Dan DeRose sold New Mexico to Pepsi for $37-million.
DeRose heads DD Marketing in Pueblo, Colo., which brokers exclusive contracts between schools and beverage companies. DD Marketing recently negotiated a deal that gives Pespi the rights to sell drinks throughout New Mexico's state university and community college system as well as a third of its K-12 school districts.
He said that while some districts may be rethinking their exclusive beverage contracts, his business is booming. He called Coca-Cola's renunciation of such contracts more act than action. Just lask week, DeRose said, Coca-Cola bottlers bid on two new contracts he is helping to negotiate.
"Coke is one of the most creative marketing companies in history," DeRose said. Coke's corporate decision "won't hurt me a bit."
Howes, Coca-Cola's spokeswoman, conceded the point.
"Ultimately, that's a decision that has to be made by the schools," she said.
In Pasco County, no school sells more Pepsi products than River Ridge Middle/High School. The 3,200-student school has nearly 30 vending machines and has sold more than 10,000 cases of drinks through them over the past two years. Cash profit: $67,750.
Almost all of the money went into beefing up the school's computer labs and technology-related mini-grants to teachers, said principal Tammy Rabon.
"If we didn't have it," Rabon said, "we wouldn't be wiped out, but we wouldn't be able to keep up with the technology."
"I really have mixed emotions" about Pepsi's influence, she said. "I know that I myself drink far too much soda, so I can appreciate that parents could be concerned that kids have access to sugary drinks. But on the other hand, I don't know how to make kids drink milk."
Frank Kelly sure does.
Kelly oversees food services for schools in Madison, Wis., which signed the nation's first exclusive beverage contract in 1997. It was with Coke, for $600,000.
Last fall, the school board, under pressure from parents and nutritionists, declined to renew the deal. Instead, the board ordered administrators to get more healthy beverages into district vending machines.
This past spring Kelly was behind a push to get milk machines into each of the district's four high schools. People, including some local dairiers, thought he was nuts. To everyone's surprise, the district sold twice as much milk as it expected.
"I've been banging away on this for years," Kelly said. "We sold about 100 pints every day, and we didn't even do any promotions. Even the dairy industry was caught off guard. I don't see it slowing down."
To be sure, it's not the same milk that mom and dad grew up on. In addition to white milk, the district sells chocolate, strawberry and a malted milk drink for $1. Those products, like soda, are heavy in sugars and calories. Nutritionists, though, said chocolate milk is a far healthier option for kids than soda.
"Absolutely, hands down, go with the flavored milk," said Lawhead. "Not only do you get the calcium, but you also get vitamin D, vitamin A and potassium."
Nationally, the dairy industry convinced schools in five other cities, including Miami, to give milk machines a shot. As in Madison, principals in those cities reported surprising success. Even Lakeland's Velda Farms, which supplied the milk to the five participating Miami high schools, didn't expect the brisk sales.
"The kids made a really good run on the milk," said Jim Hitzler of Velda Farms. "We sold more than 3,000 cases. I'd have to say it was a success."
Were kids making a conscious decision to buy a healthier drink? Probably not, concedes Pat Rheel, a spokeswoman for the National Dairy Council.
The key, she said, was ditching the half-pint paper carton. Milk sold in the school experiment was packaged in new 16-ounce plastic bottles with glitzy labels and a screw top.
"We made it cool," Rheel said. "It was the packaging: our new grab-and-go bottle with nice graphics and lots of flavors."
Alas, even milk sales are not without controversy.
After the milk machines were installed in Madison schools, protesters affiliated with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals began showing up on campus. Their message: Milk makes you fat.
- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
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