State rules try to curb obesity

High school students will have to wait until after lunch for their Flamin' Hot Crunchy Cheetos fix.

And there will be no Diet Dr Pepper available in the teacher's lounge vending machine in the morning.

New state requirements will force students, staff and entire schools to change vending machine habits and how some student activities are paid for this school year.

In an effort to curb childhood obesity in Kansas, the state school board voted this spring to require schools to sell only water, juice or milk as beverages. Vending machines with sodas and junk food won't be turned on until an hour after the last lunch period.

Fewer choices are expected to result in less vending machine revenue. Wichita North High School expects to lose much of the $1,800 a month it makes off vending sales.

A local vending company is trying to persuade the board to reconsider a policy that would hit its profits hard.

The changes also will mean schools that get a cut of the vending profits have to find other ways of paying for some student activities, such as band trips, sports equipment and pizza at club meetings.

Too much?

The requirements go too far too fast, said Joe Hemmelgarn, owner of Wichita Vending, which supplies products for machines at about 20 area school districts, including Wichita.

He plans to speak at the state board of education's meeting on Tuesday in Topeka. He said he wasn't notified of the requirements until they had passed.

"A student can get a driver's license, vote, get a job, but can't even decide to drink a diet soda?" he said.

The change mainly affects high school vending because sales are limited at elementary and middle schools.

The vending company anticipates losing $1 million in school sales next year, possibly leading to layoffs for two to three employees, Hemmelgarn said.

Wichita Vending has already been working with schools to sell healthier products by choosing low-calorie snacks and filling half of the beverage machine with low-calorie drinks, he said.

"I don't disagree that maybe we shouldn't sell cans of Coke to school," Hemmelgarn said.

'Lowest hanging fruit'

The new vending requirements are based on state wellness guidelines that have been in place since 2005.

They were originally meant to help school districts write their own wellness policies in order to meet federal guidelines, said Jodi Mackey, child nutrition and wellness director at the state Department of Education.

Guidelines define three categories of vending policies: basic, advanced and exemplary.

Schools must meet the advanced level this school year and the exemplary level in 2011-2012.

School stores, a la carte sales and fundraisers aren't included in the new requirements, Mackey said.

The advanced level means schools can't sell soda or foods that have little nutritional value until one hour after the last lunch period. Exemplary requires schools not to sell those items until after school hours.

State school board members approached Mackey in the spring about doing something to lower Kansas' growing obesity rate, she said. The obesity rate in Kansas girls doubled from 2003 to 2007.

"We're doing as much as we can with very limited resources," Mackey said. "I'm not sure what more we could do."

She turned to the guidelines, which she said were developed with 25 child health experts who looked at wellness policies nationwide, and the guidelines were reviewed by 120 education and health leaders.

Mackey said the board first considered how to require more of schools in all wellness areas, including physical activity. But those required schools to spend more money.

Board members considered vending "the lowest hanging fruit," said state board member Walt Chappell, who represents most of the Wichita school district.

"It's an opportunity to make a difference," he said. "With one change, we take a bite of it."

State board member Dave Dennis said he voted against the vending requirements because it took too many choices away from school districts.

"If we stick with taking local control away, it should not be as stringent," he said. "I've got doubts it's going to benefit things like faculty."

Dennis, who represents part of Wichita and surrounding suburban schools, said he doesn't think any action will be taken on the vending policy Tuesday, especially because schools have already had to make changes for the upcoming year. He said he hopes the board will bring the policy up for an in-depth review.

Dennis, a retired teacher from North High School, said students will go off-campus during open lunch if they can't find it in school.

"They'll buy a 2-liter bottle (of soda) for the same money," he said. "That's worse than we had before. We're not offering them choices that might be better for them."

Roughly 70 percent of the drinks sold at one Wichita high school this year contained high amounts of sugar, Chappell said.

"If you look at the drinks being sold, vending has made a tremendous amount money off kids," he said.

Paying for extras

But a portion of the vending money made from students — about 25 percent — goes back to the school and its students.

Last year Wichita Vending paid out $315,000 for the schools' share of the profit, Hemmelgarn said.

School leaders said they will miss the revenue from soda sales, but they'll make it work.

Mackey said a survey sent to schools showed about 90 percent of districts meet the vending rules for this school year.

Wichita's vending policy follows the state's advanced snack guidelines, but half the beverages in a machine can be high in sugar.

"It's a Catch-22," said Denise Wren, Wichita's assistant superintendent of high schools. "Our high schools do not get enough money. For years, they've relied on vending sales."

The school district shifted $50,000 saved from cost-cutting measures to athletics to soften the blow of vending revenue losses.

North High School principal Sherman Padgett said he puts the $1,800 a month from vending sales into a school activity fund. He said this allows him to pay for the little extras of school activities, such as entrance fees, food and equipment.

He said when he tells his teachers there will be no soda in the lounge vending machine, they say, "That's crazy."

"I do think it's true we serve as role models," Padgett said. "But in the teachers' lounge? Teachers are a little shocked."

Andover's wellness policy has only followed the basic state guidelines, assistant superintendent Tom Ostrander said.

Without the vending revenue, he said schools will have to pull from other funds to pay for activities or cut some of them.

"We understand the concern of the state board and the need for wellness," Ostrander said. "Whether the timing is right and forcing this on us a year earlier is certainly questionable."