LOS ANGELES — Like a grease fire at a Labor Day barbecue, the national "fat vs. fit" wars are flaring up this time in school hallways and cafeterias.
With public schools set to open en masse next week, the biggest back-to-campus issues aren't books, teachers, and classes, but rather sugar, soda, and fat.
Following recent studies showing the number of overweight American youth has doubled since 1980, the Los Angeles Unified School District the nation's second largest decided this week to ban the sale of soft drinks at its 677 schools starting in 2004.
The move is being hailed by many health experts, but is also raising questions about whether such top-down mandates can win this battle of the bulge. Soda, candy, and chips are so ubiquitous in convenience stores and kitchen cupboards that the choice to consume less rests largely with kids themselves. Moreover, some observers say the problem is not sedentary lifestyles but too much junk food.
Amid this debate, the decision facing districts such as Los Angeles is what emphasis to place on cafeteria policies, alongside nutrition education and other efforts.
"This is a watershed event in what has become a serious national problem," says Dr. Harold Goldstein, director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. Quoting studies that show sugary soft drinks are the largest source of unrefined sugar in kids' diets, Goldstein says, "If LAUSD can get rid of sodas against all the pressure, every district in the country can do so. They've set the high-water mark."
The soft drink ban is the boldest yet by a school board to curb a national trend: 61 percent of adults are overweight.
The statistic is raising concern among educators, doctors, and nutritionists across the country, many of whom will come together to discuss the problem at the nation's first Healthy Schools Summit in Washington this October.
Meanwhile, proponents of the LA plan see it as leading the way for schools nationwide. But soft-drink manufacturers are fizzing over being unfairly singled out as lone culprits in a dietary and health phenomenon they say is far more complex than sugary drinks.
And both sides worry how money-strapped school officials will replace the funds they make from lucrative contracts with major soft-drink companies. In Phoenix, where districts use the proceeds of soft-drink sales to fund everything from band uniforms to sports equipment, school officials have said they can't afford to consider a move like that of LA's.
Los Angeles officials agreed to the plan after years of hesitation. The deciding factor: a local university study showing 40 percent in 14 LAUSD schools were obese.
By 2004, all cafeterias, student stores, and vending machines in the 760,000-student district will offer only water, milk and beverages that contain at least 50 percent juice and no added sweeteners.
soft-drink manufacturers and other opponents of the plan say getting rid of soft drinks on campuses whose sales now net $4.5 million per year for the LAUSD will do little to affect the obesity problems now affecting growing numbers of Americans.
"This is like using a squirt gun to put out a forest fire," says Sean McBride, spokesman for the National Soft Drink Association. "The LAUSD has missed an important opportunity to stem rising obesity rates by having more physical education in their schools and better nutrition education. You can't single out one small part of the problem and act like you've fixed it."
McBride and others note that the LAUSD's decision will cost the district thousands of dollars in revenue that has long been used to purchase athletic equipment and facilities that promote the exercise necessary to overcome the same health problems.
At San Fernando High School, for instance, officials say their campus used $40,000 in income from its Coca-Cola contract for athletic programs, school projects and field trips not funded by the district. Jefferson High School reportedly earned $88,000 and Belmont High School netted over $50,000 according to the LAUSD.
But proponents of the measure said it is possible that the same funds can be raised by selling other products, from t-shirts to ball caps.
"More school districts should be actively fighting childhood obesity and not encouraging it by striking deals with soda companies," says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "We sympathize with cash strapped schools, but it doesn't make sense to promote nutrition in the classroom but promote junk food in the cafeteria."
Some hold that the entire question is one of nutrition education.
Carmen Nevarez, vice president and medical director of Public Health Institute, a nonprofit organization that conducts research and education on food issues worldwide, says school districts in Santa Monica and Berkeley used the fat scares of earlier decades to begin whole food co-ops on school grounds, teaching kids how to grow and how to eat healthier farm fresh foods.
"Kids need to learn from an early age what is good for them and what isn't ... and parents need to know there are training the palate of their kids in ways that will last a lifetime," she says.
But for now, teen soda consumption McBride says the average is 1.2 drinks per day; CCPHA's Goldstein says two makes some skeptical that the LAUSD's soft-drink ban will prove effective.
In the early '90s, after similar studies showed the negative effects of high-fat diets, several school districts nationwide tried to cut back on their sales of hamburgers, pizzas, and other high-cholesterol foods. But Officials say kids responded by taking their lunch money off campus to purchase their pizza and burgers.
"They voted with their feet, and school cafeterias suffered as a result," says Levinson.
So, Ms. Nevarez of the Public Health Institute reasons, if better nutrition education meant more young people demanded healthy drink options, soft-drink companies would find a way to provide them.
"This doesn't have to be the end of revenue streams for everyone," she says. "This is just the realization that it doesn't have to be done with fatty, sugary food."