Attempts to force healthier choices have their limits
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT Franklin High School students Vu Bui (left) and David Corbin walk back to campus after buying corndogs, soda and jojos — foods they can't buy at school — from the nearby 50th Avenue Market.   

It's a sure sign of school lunchtime when the line forms outside 50th Avenue Market, a convenience store down the street from Franklin High School.

At Franklin, much like other Portland high schools, a stream of students leaves school at lunchtime to buy soda pop and other junk food that public schools are no longer permitted to sell, under the Healthy Foods for Healthy Students state law enacted in 2007.

Paul Sandhu, a sales clerk at 50th Avenue Market, remembers being mad that he could no longer buy soda pop at Molalla High School when the law took effect in 2008, while he was a student.

'Like these kids, I left the school to buy food outside school,' Sandhu says. Now he's selling energy drinks, candy bars, muffins and other foods to Franklin students.

Sophomore Gabriella Karp popped by the store after school recently to buy some Cheetos and a Sprite. 'School food in general isn't that great,' says Karp, who often leaves campus for lunch to buy pizza and go to Burger King and other fast-food joints. Snacks in Franklin vending machines are unappealing, she says, and there's no soda pop in the beverage machines.

'We go out to lunch to buy them anyway,' Karp says. As a result, though, 'We end up going late to class sometimes.'

Oregon's public schools are a laboratory for public health campaigns to address the alarming increase in obesity.

Medical researchers warned in 2005 that today's children might be the first generation in American history to have shorter lifespans than their parents, because of increased obesity and the maladies it causes, such as diabetes.

More than a third of the calories youngsters consume each day come while they're at school, and students who are overweight at age 10 to 15 are 80 percent more likely to be obese by age 25, according to one study.

But government efforts to play food cop have their limitations.

'They think it's going to be good for the kids; it's really not,' Sandhu says. 'They're just going off campus and they're skipping school.'

And public health advocates say the 2007 law came with no enforcement tools.


Tribune Photo: Christopher Onstott • Students from the nearby Franklin High School line up out the door at the 50th Avenue Market on their lunch break (above) to purchase foods they can't buy at school (below). It's the same scene most weekdays during the school year.


Getting around the law

Some Franklin students have discovered they can sneak into the custodian's cubby to buy regular soda pop at a vending machine there. And the Franklin student store is still selling Coca Cola, Barq's root beer and other drinks, in violation of the state law that bans sugary soft drink sales at schools.

A 2010 study by dietetic graduate students doing internships at Oregon Health and Science University found a variety of Oregon middle and high schools were still selling junk foods that didn't comply with the law at student stores and vending machines.

Portland and other school districts have found it easier to assure compliance by relying on contracts with vending machine suppliers, says Shannon Stember, assistant director of nutrition services for Portland Public Schools.

Paresh Patel, whose Portland company, Courtesy Vending LLC, supplies the vending machines for Portland and several other school districts, says he went to great lengths to get manufacturers and other suppliers to change their offerings so his vending machines complied with the law. For example, the Franklin snack machines sell baked Doritos tortilla chips that have 50 percent less fat than regular Doritos. Yet Patel still finds unfair competition when some school student stores and other concessions don't comply.

About a month ago, Patel says, he noticed a public school concession less than 30 feet from the main office. 'It had every single thing that you can imagine you're not supposed to have.'

Portland getting healthier

As a district, Portland Public Schools has adopted numerous initiatives over the past two decades to encourage healthier eating habits, Stember says.

Years ago, student cafeterias switched to low-fat and nonfat milk. The district renegotiated 'pouring rights' contracts with Coca-Cola and Pepsi to move away from sugary soda pops, which cost the district millions in revenue. The district centralized control of vending machine contracts, eliminating side deals, for example, where an individual sports program would raise money with local vending machines. The district barred a la carte food sales in cafeterias, to assure students also get fruits, vegetables and milk. Regular cafeteria lunches have more fresh and local foods, with less processing, and students can get seconds on fruits and vegetables without charge.

Portland also adopted its own nutrition standards for vending machine snacks before the 2007 state law was enacted.

The district has stepped up enforcement of the state law, even ordering Wilson High School's student store to halt food sales after learning that some students were buying multiple snacks for lunch there, and that it was selling a la carte items that didn't come with fruit and vegetables.

'We try to work with them on a school-by-school basis when we hear about it,' Stember says.

Vending machine owner tries shift to healthy snacks

Paresh Patel saw a niche to provide healthier vending machine foods a decade ago, when his Portland company, Courtesy Vending LLC, boosted sales by adding items like baked chips, granola bars and nuts.

So when the Oregon Legislature adopted a 2007 law requiring that all school vending machines meet a higher nutritional standard, Patel was able to ramp up quickly.

'We order stuff from across the country,' he says. 'We work with the manufacturers.'

Still, there's no doubt that shifting to healthier foods in schools cut into sales, by a sizable amount when it comes to beverages, Patel says.

That could explain why the Oregon Commission for the Blind, which has contracts to provide vending and food concessions in federal, state and local government buildings, strongly resisted then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski's efforts last year to assure that 100 percent of the foods sold in state office buildings met a higher nutritional standard.

Walt Reyes, who negotiates food services contracts for the Commission for the Blind, says the vending machine industry is slow to change course, likening it to an ocean liner.

'You're asking for a 500,000-pound machine to stop and make a turn,' Reyes says.

Large vending machine companies also get cash payments from snack manufacturers to place their products in machines.

'The largest manufacturers and vending machine companies, most of them make a significant amount of their revenue based on what corporations have paid to put in the machine,' Patel says. 'They're just getting paid to put that stuff in the machines.'

- Steve Law

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