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Off-campus cravings.

Byline: Anne Williams The Register-Guard

CORRECTION (RAN Oct. 31, 2007): The Eugene School District has signed a contract with Coca-Cola Bottling Co. and is still negotiating with Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. An article on Tuesday's front page incorrectly stated the status of the contracts.

It's hard to fathom that, just seven years ago, the Eugene School Board was debating not whether to keep soft drinks in high schools, but whether to double the number of vending machines stocking the sugar-laden, nutritionally barren stuff.

Tempted by potential sales proceeds and up-front payments that bought stadium bleachers for all four high schools, the board said yes to eight-year deals with Coke and Pepsi.

Soon after, the national spotlight fixed on the escalation of childhood obesity, triggering a seismic shift in attitudes about what foods and beverages should be available in schools.

Today, pop sales are banned on all Eugene campuses, and the district boasts one of Oregon's strictest wellness policies (all districts had to adopt such policies in 2006 under a federal mandate). Candy, fried chips, doughnuts and other so-called "junk foods" have all but disappeared from school lunch lines, vending machines and student stores.

But whether the turnaround in views and policies has trickled down to students is another matter.

Witness the hordes of students halting traffic at 11:30 a.m. weekdays as they cross Bailey Hill Road to the Churchill Market, where you can buy a jo-jo basket and a liter of Mountain Dew for $2.45. Or the cars peeling out of the Churchill parking lot en route to Carl's Jr., McDonald's, Pizza Hut or a half-dozen other fast-food outlets within a mile of the school.

While the hot spots vary from school to school, the same scene plays out at all four.

Some high school students and employees believe that there's been an uptick in the numbers of kids leaving campus in the wake of the Wellness Policy, adopted in May 2006. School cafeteria and vending machine revenue figures lend credence to that theory, with sales lagging behind pre-Wellness Policy levels.

"I haven't done any kind of study, but I've heard that a lot and I kind of expected it myself, and our sales have plummeted," said food services director Chad Williams, who works for Sodexho, the company that the Eugene district contracts with for the meals program.

Soft-drink vendors have seen similar results, with vending machine sales last year dropping by about 40 percent for the Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. and 15 percent for the Coca-Cola Bottling Co., according to district officials - although in Pepsi's case, at least, the loss has been balanced out to some degree by rising lunch-counter sales of bottled water, said Andy Moore, the local co-president.

Ever since 2006, when both companies removed soda from vending machines (Pepsi did so pre-emptively in April, Coca-Cola in June, as required by the Wellness Policy), the machines have stocked only bottled water, juices, vitamin water and sports drinks. The district recently renewed its contract with Pepsi, and is negotiating with Coke.

Policy dismissed

Many students in and around Churchill High School at lunch time on a recent showery day said that, while it's a laudable effort, the district's ban on soda and junk food is ineffective. Opinions were mixed, though, on whether it's actually prompted more students to leave campus at lunch.

"The more that people say, `You can't have this, you can't have that,' the more kids want it," said sophomore Yaqui Aguilar, who stood outside the Churchill Market with her friends Kady DeVore, Kylie Spring and Courtney Peterson, all of whom had made purchases inside. "If (the market) wasn't here, we'd just go farther. (The policy) really doesn't make a difference."

Soda pop disappeared from high school vending machines the summer before the girls' freshman year, so they never acquired the habit of buying it at school. While some students may well be leaving campus on a single-minded quest for the junk food they miss, the girls' primary motivation seemed to be to avoid the cafeteria - although most said they've seldom, if ever, given it a try.

"I've just heard that the food is gross," said Spring, sipping a Fufu Berry Jones soda.

"Just looking at it makes me sick," Aguilar said.

Those sentiments are as old as the hills, of course, and difficult for food service managers to combat. Nonetheless, they have tried mightily, introducing an array of new menu items in the past several years, including made-to-order wraps and sub sandwiches; tofu, chicken and beef rice bowls; salads with romaine lettuce and grilled chicken; and freshly baked pizza. They've also made meals healthier, even though the Wellness Policy didn't directly affect the federal school lunch program. In Eugene and other districts, for instance, whole wheat has replaced white bread and buns, romaine lettuce has supplanted iceberg, and deep-fried anything has gone completely by the wayside.

The changes seem to be paying off. More students are buying meals sold through the lunch line, especially at middle schools, where the number of "reimbursable" lunches - full meals (typically an entree, salad bar and milk or juice) for which the federal government fully or partially reimburses the school district - has shot up by 67 percent in the past five years. At high schools, it's jumped by 45 percent.

But the Wellness Policy, combined with earlier efforts by Sodexho to root out the worst junk food, has taken a huge bite out of "a la carte," which - thanks to a substantial price markup - is the program's most lucrative revenue source.

Replacing the junk

Williams, the Eugene food services manager, said he was "appalled" at the a la carte selection at middle schools and high schools when he started in 2003-04, the year the district's contract with Aramark expired and Sodexho won the bid: doughnuts; jumbo cookies; liter-sized bottles of soda pop; high-fat, "Big Grab" chips; candy of all stripes.

At the Churchill a la carte counter - called the student store - few such treats were on display on a recent day. In their place was more wholesome fare such as Goldfish, baked potato chips, nonfat chocolate and strawberry milk, fruit juice, bottled water, cereal bars and beef jerky, along with hot submarine sandwiches, burritos and pizza sticks.

Evidently, kids preferred Aramark's selection. The year after Sodexho took over, a la carte sales sank districtwide from $953,000 to $786,000. They've been marching down steadily ever since, and last year hit $601,099.

The decline, coupled with rising labor costs, has placed Eugene's already unprofitable food services program further in the red. Last year, the district had to kick in about $285,000 to the program, $115,000 more than anticipated, and it has budgeted $291,000 this year.

"Every year that's a board discussion because obviously the more money we have to transfer to the food services, the less money we have for education," Finance Director Susan Fahey said.

Churchill cafeteria production coordinator Mary Hicks, who has worked in high school cafeterias for 12 years, brims with pride over the improved offerings in the lunch line.

"Oh my, what she's doing with tofu is out of this world!" she said of one of her co-workers, who was cleaning up after the lunch rush on a recent day.

But she said it's disheartening that so many students are snubbing the school food, refusing even to give it a try. It also rankles her that youngsters can hop across the street and buy all the greasy, sugary treats and huge bottles of soda they want - as well as deli items such as chicken strips, sub sandwiches and pizza.

"It's like you know what? That's not fair," said Hicks, who would love nothing more than to see the district stop letting kids off campus at lunch - an idea that rarely even gets a mention and is unlikely ever to gain traction.

That doesn't mean Hicks would like to see junk back in the lunch line: "Even though the sales have dropped, we're doing what's right for kids."

Students in favor

Some students couldn't agree more.

"Personally, I think the wellness policy is going great," said Natalie Harrison, who, in her role as Churchill's student representative to the Eugene School Board, recently discussed the issue with board members. "Students can make the choice to go across the street, but it makes them go out of their way to do it."

While she said many students are frustrated at losing some of the food and drink options they've previously enjoyed, she described herself as a "very healthy person" who favors bottled water over pop, and fruit snacks over potato chips.

"I step in front of the vending machines now and it feels nice," she said.

School officials can only hope more students adopt such attitudes - and perhaps they will, as younger students grow accustomed to healthier fare as they move up through the system.

Next fall, the selection available in Eugene and all Oregon schools will be even more restricted - though not as a result of district wellness policies. House Bill 2650, championed by Sen. Bill Morrisette, D-Springfield, will have a dramatic impact on the school food landscape, Williams said - especially in districts with less aggressive wellness policies. While the law doesn't apply to foods sold through the national school meals program, it sets strict limits on the fat, sugar and calorie content of all snacks, beverages and a la carte entrees sold on school grounds.

For instance, at high schools, snack items can't exceed 200 calories, and a la carte entrees can't have more than four grams of fat per 100 calories and can't exceed 450 calories.

Williams said many of the a la carte items, including hamburgers and muffins, fall short of those standards. The legislation also will restrict the size of certain beverages sold, such as sports drinks and fruit juice.

"Basically what this is going to do is eliminate pretty much 90 percent of our stuff," he said. "And a lot of the current vendors out there, there's just not product available (to replace what gets ousted)."

The legislation has placed Oregon at the forefront of the war on junk food in schools, said Mary Lou Hennrich, executive director of the Portland-based Community Health Partnership, which lobbied for the bill.

"Our standards are a little better than California, because we ban trans fats," she said.
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Title Annotation:Education
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Oct 30, 2007
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