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Published: Tuesday, 9/19/2000

Soda deals with schools turn out sour for students

Commercialization is no longer creeping into the classroom. It's marching.

The General Accounting Office - Congress's investigators -reported last week that more and more American schools are making Faustian deals with marketers, trading off access to schoolchildren for cash.

Educational “materials” that feature brands and logos. Hallway billboards. Scoreboards. Oh, and the ever-present soda machines.

Here in Toledo, the only organized voice that seems to be questioning sugary drinks in schools is the Toledo Dental Society.

Who would have thought dentists would lead us to the barricades? Not that the DDS crowd is looking to get militant. Says Rossford dentist Bill Zouhary: “It's not that we want to go after soda companies. That's not our issue.”

Dentists, OK? Think tooth-and-gum health, and you're getting closer.

Despite the dental society's ruffle-no-feathers posture, this week the group is bringing in a pair of speakers likely to do just that. Speaking Thursday is Dr. Michael Jacobson, head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest - a watchdog group known for strong and often controversial stands - and Dylan Bernstein, of the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education.

As Dr. Zouhary says: “That Jacobson, he may be a little fringe.” As for Mr. Bernstein (a Toledo native), his take on this subject may strike the dentists as fringier than fringe.

“Kids are a captive audience,” says Mr. Bernstein. “Students have to be in school by law, and what are they learning about? Corporate products.”

Coke may be paying the Toledo school system $4.5 million over 10 years for the right to install soda machines, but the aim isn't strictly sales, says Mr. Bernstein: “Coke and Pepsi aren't making a lot of money on these [school] contracts. They're doing it for brand loyalty, for lifetime consumers. They're branding our kids.”

While there are two issues here, they're intertwined; how can anyone who wants to protect the health of children be any less interested in safeguarding access to their minds?

A recent Toledo Dental Society survey reports that only four area school systems have no school soda machines.

Four districts have contracts only for athletic events, while seven districts have hammered out school-wide deals.

That's a lot of kids whose school boards sold them out - literally.

John Sheehan, the lone nay-sayer of a 17-member Colorado school consortium that approved a $27.7-million Coke deal, put it best.

“Our schools have been entrusted with the responsibility of educating [students]. Taking financial advantage of this unique situation is a breach of that trust ...

“Yes, schools need money, but turning to commercial sales sends a message to our voters and legislators that we can let them off the hook - that advertising and sales of consumer products can fill the gap when it comes to supporting education.”

That's the kind of ethical and commonsensical stance that needs no sugarcoating.

Roberta de Boer's column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. Readers may contact her at 724-6086, or e-mail roberta@theblade.com.

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