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The Junk Food Lobby Wins Again

The junk-food industry's lobbyists are working hard to make sure sodas, candy and fast food are cheap and plentiful in the nation's schools.
 
 
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On Tuesday, Connecticut Governor Jodi Rell vetoed what would have been the nation's strongest school-based nutrition law. With one stroke of the pen, she put to rest an extremely contentious three-year battle to rid Connecticut schools of soda and junk food.

Similar scenarios are being played out in state capitals all over the nation, where high-paid lobbyists of multi-national corporations such as Coca-Cola are swooping in to foil the efforts of local nutrition advocates, educators. With rising rates of childhood obesity and diabetes, state legislatures have become a major battleground over the sale of junk food in public schools.

Ironically, the most common argument made against such bills is that schools should maintain "local control" over nutrition policy. But Governor Rell's reasoning is hard to swallow. She invoked the word "local" no fewer than 16 times in her 3-page veto message. However, many school policies are made at the state and even national level. Perhaps the governor has heard of President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" policy?

But Rell is not alone. All over the country, politicians deep in the pockets of the junk food lobby are using the excuse of "local control" to defend their indefensible positions on school nutrition. Trouble is that local school districts are lured by the much-needed cash generated by soda and junk food sales. Yet, as many parents are realizing, no amount of money can justify sacrificing children's health.

Same Story Elsewhere

Recent examples of similar corporate influence include how in March, the Kentucky state legislature passed a compromise bill that bans soda only in elementary schools. Kentucky nutrition advocates were worn down after battling Coca-Cola lobbyists for four years. Allowing companies to continue to sell soda in middle and high schools was the only way the bill could possibly pass.

Also, Arizona passed a law in April that bans the sale of soft drinks and candy during the school day, but only in kindergarten through eighth grade. The provision that would have extended the ban to high schools was added and removed from the bill several times, but ultimately, the junk food lobby got its way.

And in May, a strong piece of legislation was completely gutted in Oregon thanks to corporate lobbying. The bill would have banned carbonated soft drinks, candy, and fried pastry products in schools. But the law that passed calls only for schools to have "wellness policies." The Oregon Soft Drink Association donated $91,000 in campaign contributions to state politicians last fall. Three key lawmakers--members of the education committee--received $2,000 each.

High-powered Lobbying Tactics

The showdown in Connecticut involved an eight-hour House debate in which lawmakers engaged in such stall tactics as relating memories of being deprived of candy as a child. (Who cares and why is this is a basis for policymaking?) The original bill would have allowed only water, juice, and milk to be sold during the school day, but a compromise reached at the end of the marathon session allowed diet soda and sports drinks to be sold in high schools. Then the bill had to go back to the Senate, where it had already passed. But this time, lawmakers there attempted to delay the process by adding no fewer than 10 unrelated amendments, such as requiring smoke detectors in school bathrooms.

And in a particularly underhanded move, while the bill awaited the governor' s signature, a sign mysteriously appeared on the inside of a high school vending machine that read "Let the state know how you feel about the state getting into your lunch program", followed by Governor Rell's e-mail and phone number. The sign was not approved by the school, as is required for all public postings.

To do its bidding, Coca-Cola hired Patrick Sullivan, of Sullivan & LeShane, which the Hartford Courant has called "the most influential lobbying firm in the state." For his services, Sullivan is paid $80,000 annually by Coca-Cola 's New York division, plus an additional $7,350 a month by its New England subsidiary.

What Connecticut Governor Rell failed to mention in her veto message was her own possible conflict of interest: The other co-founder of this lobbying firm, Patricia LeShane, has served as the governor's campaign advisor.

Proposals to rid schools of unhealthy food and beverages are currently pending in several other states where similar battles are being fought. For example, in California, nutrition advocates are back asking lawmakers to get soda out of high schools, which were exempted from a measure passed two years ago thanks to soda industry lobbying. How many years must go by and how many precious resources must be spent on accomplishing what should be common sense policy? And when will politicians begin to show real leadership by placing the health of our children above corporate profit?

Michele Simon, a public-health attorney who teaches health policy at UC Hastings College of the Law, is director of the Center for Informed Food Choices , a nonprofit in Oakland, Calif.