As published in my Op-ed column in Manila Standard Today
A few days ago, BBC News reported that in California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently signed a law banning the sale of soft drinks in high schools. This law extends a prior law imposing the ban in elementary schools. The move is in response to what Schwarzenegger calls an “obesity epidemic.”
Beginning 2007, only “water, milk and some fruit and sports drinks that contain a controlled amount of sweeteners” will be offered for sale in high schools. The regulation is not limited to drinks. Even food traditionally sold in school cafeterias are likewise affected. For instance, “pizza, burritos, pasta and sandwiches must contain no more than four grams of fat for every 100 calories, with a total of no more than 400 calories.”
Prior to the signing of the new law, Associated Press carried a report quoting Bob Achermann, a lobbyist for the California-Nevada Soft Drink Association, saying that the association would fight the extension of the ban to high schools. He argued that outlawing soft drink sales in school didn’t necessarily prevent teenagers from consuming them during school hours. “They can bring them to school, they can get them after school,” AP quoted Achermann.
The reaction of the soft drinks manufacturers was based on two things: 1) kids form a wide base of the soft drinks market and 2) prohibiting schools from selling to these kids would upset a well-entrenched business arrangement with many schools.
School authorities sign contracts with these companies to allow them to sell their products in the schools. In exchange, the companies pay the schools for the privilege to sell. In short, the anti-obesity laws mean huge losses in income for both the soft drinks manufacturers and the schools.
This practice of signing up schools for the right to sell food products in school canteens is something that is very much alive in the Philippines. I was approached a few weeks ago by someone who wanted to establish contact with my kids’ school. In a nutshell, the objective was to induce my kids’ school to enter into the same kind of arrangement that the schools in California have with the soft drinks manufacturers. The only difference is that the company that my friend was representing wants an exclusive contract. The school signs a contract allowing it to sell its products to the exclusion of other food companies’ products. In return, the school gets a few to several millions of pesos depending on the size of the student population. Officially, the remuneration is supposedly to support school projects. As far as I know, the campaign is limited to private schools. The company’s products are a little pricey and rather beyond the budget of public school children.
Without wanting to sound discouraging, I told my friend that selling the idea to my kids’ school was a long shot because soft drinks, chichirya (chips), powdered juices and all other artificial drinks are banned in the school as a matter of policy. No soft drinks, she said, this company is into healthy food. Well, healthy but still processed food. My kids’ school is into natural food. The everyday menu is prepared by a nutritionist with heavy emphasis on vegetables. Drinks are limited to juices from freshly squeezed fruits.
Anyway, a company engaged in the business of making “healthy” food isn’t so objectionable when compared to a soft drinks manufacturer. But I figured that if one food company is onto this kind of campaign, so must the others –including soft drinks companies. What if the soft drinks companies’ proposed “packages” are more attractive to school administrators than those of juice makers, for instance? Schools are businesses, after all, and a few to several millions of pesos cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered negligible. If a school has to sign a contract at all with any of them, the former is a much better choice over the latter a thousand times over.
From a marketing point of view, it’s really nothing more than an aggressive campaign to sell products. Pure and simple. But from the perspective of parents whose children spend at least eight hours in school for five days a week, there is nothing simple about the situation at all. My kids bring packed lunches and snacks. Even if they didn’t, their school’s nutrition program leaves nothing to be desired and my husband and I have nothing to be anxious about. But what about other schools? What about those that see nothing wrong with selling soft drinks and chips for recess? What will happen when soft drinks manufacturers and chichirya makers start employing this aggressive marketing strategy as well, if they have not in fact done so already?
I am not aware of any law in the Philippines regulating what food products and items school canteens can and cannot sell. From what I have seen in dozens of school canteens, that is left to the discretion of the school administration. Neither is there a law prohibiting or regulating contracts between food and beverage companies, and schools. Hence, it is not uncommon to find ice cream stalls, bake shops, soft drinks and hotdog stands, and vending machines full of chips and canned soft drinks inside school canteens and compounds — all selling their branded products and conspicuously displaying their brand names. I don’t think it’s realistic to presume that they get their puwesto for free.
It just seems to me that there is something very ironic about a situation that allows schools to make money by neglecting our children’s health and health education. Teaching our kids about health and nutrition is part of their education. And the schools’ primary concern is — or should be — to educate our children. What is the point of teaching them about go, grow and glow foods and the lack of nutritive values of soft drinks and chichirya if, the moment they step inside their school canteens, these products are conspicuously offered for sale? Can the irony be justified by the income that the schools earn from the food and beverage companies that, at best, may help augment budgets for school projects?
In California, Schwarzenegger’s concern is the “obesity epidemic.” That is why the ban on soft drinks is coupled with the regulation of the amount of sugar in juices and the amount of fat in food. While obesity may not yet be a problem among the Filipino youth, undernourishment is. Not necessarily in the sense that they’re not eating enough food — remember we’re talking about private schools where the students are not exactly poor — but in the sense that they are eating the wrong kinds of food. Between widespread advertising in newspapers, magazines, television, radio and the Internet — most of them “glamorized” by the endorsement of entertainment celebrities — and the practice of schools of selling what can only be labeled as junk food right inside school canteens, what chance do our children really have of remembering what they learn inside the classroom? Are they going to grow up thinking that classroom lessons are mere theories that can be disregarded after passing their tests? That makes health and nutrition education a joke, doesn’t it?
If there are still some members of Congress who truly care about what becomes of our youth, somebody better look into the relationship between schools and food and beverage companies. Schools may be businesses but they are businesses imbued with public interest. Isn’t it high time that we start giving more than a cursory glance to what our kids eat in their school canteens?