School board may ease ban on junk food
Years after a ban on unhealthful food in Seattle high schools, students are now ignoring campus vending machines — crippling student governments that once depended on profits from the sales. The Seattle School Board is likely to relax its policy next year.
Seattle Times education reporter
The Seattle School Board is considering relaxing its ban on unhealthful food in high schools amid complaints from student governments that the policy has cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars in vending-machine profits over the past seven years.
The policy, approved in 2004 — before any state or federal regulations on school nutrition had been established — put Seattle on the cutting edge of the fight against childhood obesity.
But board members now acknowledge they probably went too far. The restrictions, which are more strict than the now-crafted state and federal nutrition guidelines, allow only products such as milk, natural fruit juice, baked chips and oat-based granola bars.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many students are not particularly interested in those items.
In 2001, before the junk-food ban was passed, high-school associated student body (ASB) governments across the city made $214,000 in profits from vending machines, according to district data. This year, they've made $17,000.
The district promised in 2006 to repay ASBs for the revenue they lost because of the policy. But it never did. So the ASB organizations — which subsidize athletic uniform and transportation costs, support student clubs, hold school dances and fund the yearbook and newspaper, among other expenses — have had to cancel programs and ask students to pay significantly more to participate on athletic teams and in school clubs.
The impact has been especially hard on South End schools because most don't have wealthy parent groups to support activities and many students can't afford higher costs to participate.
Moreover, opponents of the ban on junk food say it's not even accomplishing its mission of preventing kids from eating unhealthful food.
That's because students at some open-campus schools have made it a practice to walk to nearby minimarts and gas stations to buy the same products they used to purchase in the vending machines.
"The kids will find the junk food," said Stephanie Ragland, a former PTSA member at Franklin High School, which was hit especially hard by the ban.
Frustrated students, stung by dwindling ASB revenues, started discussing the ban last fall. The Seattle Student Senate formally passed a proposal to amend the policy last month and several students met with School Board members at a special work session Nov. 30.
At the session, Roosevelt High School junior Dexter Tang presented statistics about how the nutrition policy has impacted Roosevelt. He said the revenues from vending machines and student stores are down by more than $50,000 per year, and that's caused the school to cut back on funding to a range of student activities while increasing what have been called "pay to play" athletic fees.
Board members apologized to the students for failing to live up to their promise of refunding lost revenue. They said their tight budget makes it impossible to repay the money now, but they pledged to explore revising the ban.
"It doesn't make any sense at all," board member Sharon Peaslee said. "We definitely need to modify the policy so we can have all these new food and beverage possibilities in our schools and you can make money on them."
No members spoke in support of the ban.
That marks a stark contrast to 2004, when the board first adopted the policy. At the time, it was praised as a strong stand against unhealthful food.
But as school districts across the country (and state and federal governments) adopted less restrictive policies, it became clear the stand may have been too strong.
Former board president Brita Butler-Wall, who led the effort to enact the ban, acknowledged it went further than most other districts and hurt ASBs. But she said it still has a positive impact on students.
"It's very counterproductive to the educational mission to sell students stuff knowing that it's actually bad for them," said Butler-Wall, adding she opposes any revision to the ban. "I call it a tax on their bodies to fund the ASBs, and I don't think it's equitable."
Michael DeBell, the only current member who was on the board when the ban was approved, said that board was well-intentioned but that "they went perhaps a little too far."
He said he supports revising the policy so it still supports nutrition but does not cripple ASBs.
"I think there's a middle ground," said DeBell, the board president. "I'd much rather see students buy reasonably healthy products in vending machines than junk food off campus."
District staff plan to present a proposal to revise the policy by next spring, with the goal of its taking effect next school year.
The revised policy is likely to match the state and federal guidelines, officials said.
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or email@example.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.
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