SOS! Something called “Soda Out of Schools” (SOS) has been granted $642,951 by the NIH. SOS will be coordinated by Pat Crawford, who co-directs the University of California at Berkeley’s Center for Weight and Health, and is affiliated with their Department of Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology. She quacks like a public-health ninny, and entitling her efforts “SOS” says it all.

Or does it? Crawford clearly has an anti-soda agenda, but SOS promises to be a serious research effort. “We need a rigorous study, actual data, scientific numbers,” she says. Crawford will study intensively two otherwise equivalent high schools — one with soda vending machines, one without — and assess “compensatory dietary changes” such as drinking soda at home instead of at school, and other factors like television viewing, race, gender, class, etc.

At stake are soda bans in school districts across the country — especially in California, where soda is prohibited in elementary schools, and in Los Angeles County, Berkeley and Oakland high schools. If Crawford can find no evidence that a soda ban diminishes obesity, school districts that have already banned soda — without any real evidence to back up their agenda — will have to answer for depriving their athletics programs of much-needed resources.

SOS will test the theory that soda causes obesity among adolescents. We’re betting that theory is just plain wrong, and Crawford will come back empty-handed. No doubt she will spin her results and call for “further study” or some such nonsense, but it’s hard to get around the fact that obesity is more highly correlated to exercise than eating habits.

The NIH will probably have more success with a program called Colorado on the Move, which encourages people to walk more in an effort to shave off excess pounds. It may sound a little obvious, but it’s organized by a serious researcher, Professor Jim Hill of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado, and has backing from the CDC and the governor as well as the NIH. America’s weight gain comes down to 100 extra calories a day, Hill argues, and that can be washed away by about 15 minutes of walking. Plus, it looks like Colorado on the Move is “rapidly becoming a real grass-roots movement.”

So the NIH is funding one exercise program that combats obesity without intrusive restrictions on consumer freedom, and testing the efficacy of another anti-obesity idea before a wave of anti-soda zeal sweeps the country. It could do worse things with its money.