When it comes to shaving inches off of America’s waistline, there’s no better person to lead the charge than a former commander in chief who should know a little about unhealthy eating. Yes, it’s recent quadruple-bypass surgery patient Bill Clinton who hopes to point Americans in the direction of better health. And the former president’s plans for cutting the fat start with attacking the soda machines in the nation’s public schools.

Angela Cesere

While the full effects of the program will not be seen until the 2009-10 school year, the agreement reached between the nation’s biggest soda producers and schools aims to make it difficult for 35 million students to purchase sugar-loaded beverages during the school day. Soda machines in high schools will start stocking only sugar-free, diet versions of popular drinks, and water, sports drinks and fruit juices will be the only beverage choices available for younger students. The objective – developed by the William J. Clinton Foundation – is that by encouraging children to make smarter drink choices at school and restricting their rights to buy “unhealthy” drinks, we can enable them to apply these health-conscious decisions outside of school and live healthier.

The mission of this program is unmistakably pointed in the right direction. Enforcing healthy rules on school-aged children will likely have some effect on the drink decisions they make at school. But the hidden flaw in the program is that it will only succeed in that one action: reducing the amount of school-purchased sugar drinks children consume during the school day. The program does nothing to control what drinks children bring to school nor does it encourage greater physical activity or educate children about the hazards of mass soda consumption. The program makes sense because nearly one in five children in this country is overweight, but to think that children will rethink their beverage choices outside of school due to the constraints put on them at school – without proper education on the issue – is foolish.

Clinton and his advisory committee must have also forgotten the simple logic in the fact that when you tell kids they can’t do something one way, they will simply find another way to do it. Informing avid soda drinkers that the vending machines at school will no longer carry their beloved beverages will only result in students buying their unhealthy drinks somewhere else.

The agreement with soda companies and schools will have almost no effect on the $63 billion beverage industry’s annual earnings. School-soda sales are but a minute portion of profits for soda companies, so cutting sales in school cafeterias will not interrupt anyone’s consumption of soda.

But what’s even more telling of the foolishness of Clinton’s program is that soda sales will not be interrupted at school-sponsored events such as concerts, plays and sports games. Essentially, schools are sending the message that it’s ok for mom and dad to drink Coca-Cola during their child’s soccer game, but they will keep students from having this same freedom during the school day. This defeats the purpose of encouraging students to make smarter drink choices, because the children who choose to drink unhealthy drinks at school are the same children who learn bad nutrition habits from their parents. And if children see their parents continuing to drink soda – especially at school-sponsored events – they will continue to drink it themselves.

If the true aim is to force Americans to make healthier decisions, then Clinton should realize that unhealthy soda consumption and poor nutrition choices are nationwide problems, not simply school-cafeteria problems. Frankly, it would be more rational to remove soda machines from workplaces because if adults are forced to make smarter choices during the day, they may teach their children to do the same. Then, Americans could truly begin to attack the obesity epidemic in this country.

In a nation where “fat” is a politically incorrect term for a full-figured person and almost two-thirds of the adult population is either overweight or obese, steps should be taken to encourage better nutrition. Undoubtedly, it is necessary to tackle the mass consumption of products that hinder healthier lifestyles in order to reduce the percentage of fat Americans, not only to save lives, but also to save federal money. But it’s education and lifestyle changes that will do this, not simply eliminating beverage choices in the nation’s schools.

Kennelly can be reached at .@umich.edu

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