California Governor Gray Davis, with an eye on the 2004 presidential election, has been working on building a national profile.
While potential rivals focus on terrorism and the economy, Davis has boldly seized the ground on our nation’s most pressing concern:
Soda and snack food in schools.
On October 13 Davis signed into law California Senate Bill 19, which bans the sale of foods that do not meet arbitrary standards for fat
and sugar content on elementary campuses — in cafeterias, snack bars, vending machines and even at student bake sale fundraisers —
and limits the sale of carbonated drinks at middle schools.
So, Golden State students, say goodbye to soda with lunch, and to desserts that are more than 35 percent sugar —
no matter how healthy a meal they’re topping off.
The law’s sponsor, State Senator Martha Escutia, wanted it to go much further. Her original bill called for the restrictions to
apply to all grade levels in public schools. During the debate over the legislation in August, she said her current proposal was just the first step.
“The health of our young people is at risk because of the eating environment at our schools,” Escutia said at the time. “This might be a bill
that takes a few years to get passed, but I’m very persistent… I will remove junk foods from schools in the next four years.”
Like a lot of bad ideas, the new California law could become infectious and spread to other states. A county in Wyoming is likely to stop letting
kids buy soda at school, costing the schools up to $30,000 per year in funding. There, a committee that included students was swayed by baseless
anti-soda propaganda that links soda consumption to osteoporosis, obesity, tooth decay, and heart disease.
In this latest effort to micromanage schools and students, California’s government has actually made things worse. On average, most students buy
just two dozen cans of soda from the machines in a school year — less than one can a week. That doesn’t hurt them, but it does help their schools.
Schools use the income from soda machines to help pay for extracurricular activities, those essential parts of the learning experience that are
often first on the block during budget-cutting time. In addition, by severely limiting access to soda machines, the law may be stealing some
students’ best means of getting regular exercise, since soda revenues help pay for athletic programs that taxpayers reject.
Escutia recognized these concerns, but brushed them aside. “While selling junk food and soda may bring in money for schools, it does so at the expense
of our children’s health,” she insisted. “I would be incredibly disappointed if our schools were to say that that’s an acceptable tradeoff.”
But the “tradeoff” is not so clear-cut. Students will just bring the forbidden foods from home. Or save their consumption for after school. In short:
Without this law, schools get needed income and students drink the occasional soda. With this law, schools will be forced to go begging… and students
still drink the occasional soda.
The new law could backfire in many ways. Some educators say the revenue loss could force them to turn to door-to-door sales for fundraising. And as any
kid or parent knows, school candy drives lead to students buying and eating a lot more candy than they normally would. (The new law does not prohibit
candy-sale fundraisers, but it does officially “discourage” them.)
The law is just the latest statute to confuse the roles of government and family. A mother herself, Escutia of all people should know that choices
about children’s diets are best made by parents. Would Escutia want the state to suggest she was not capable of selecting a healthy diet for her own
children — or for herself?
Yet Davis and Escutia feel comfortable forcing families and students to accept a Brave New California where classmates bring in boxes of rice cakes
to share on their birthdays, douse the coach with a jug of soy milk after winning the homecoming game, and celebrate the end of exams with a big tofu party.
Not exactly your memories of youth? With this new law on the books, this could be how today’s California children will remember theirs.