You'd think it would be fairly cut and dried. Signing contracts that give cola companies exclusive access to kids within the confines of their educational institutions is a bad thing. And it seemed like after a decade of granting pop giants just that kind of access, the era of corporate branding in schools might be nearing its end. After all, the new party on the provincial block has promised to resuscitate a cash-starved education system, childhood obesity stats have catapulted to front-page news, and corporate food giants like Kraft have promised to cut marketing in schools to keep our kids from ballooning under their influence.
For a few brief hours it looked like the Toronto district school board had indeed agreed to end the reign of pop contracts in our high schools. But a last-minute flip-flop at its June 23 meeting has left some observers wondering what happened. And while the government has been vocal about overweight youth, everyone from the Toronto board of health to the education minister - all the folks you'd expect to protect the public good - were glaringly absent from the showdown.
From Pepsi Generation to Coke kids and back to the open arms of Pepsi, the branding of Toronto schools isn't new. The issue actually dates back to efforts to raise funds to save crumbling cafeterias from looming closures. The year was 94, and Harris, with his slash-and-burn approach to education (which made the board's second, more profitable contract with Coke in 99 even more of a shoe-in) hadn't even been elected yet. Today's reality isn't all that different. Gaps in public funding remain. In comes the friendly cola company willing to offer $5.8 million in assistance over five years in exchange for exclusive product placement throughout cafs and hallways (minus the old Pepsi student-of-the-month plaques), and, presto, it's late June 2004 in the Toronto district school board offices.
This time, though, trustees actually voted it down. Then a few hours passed.
"Once the trustees thought about it for a while, we realized that maybe we did move too hastily," says trustee Josh Matlow, who ended up switching his vote in favour of a Pepsi contract.
"Even if the board hadn't struck an exclusive deal, the schools could do their own, so it wouldn't have stopped this product from being there. However, all the money we have to fund our nutrition programs and so many extracurricular activities (which the pop contracts pay for) would have been gone."
But other trustees didn't cast the decision in quite the same light. "It's making pimps out of us," says Sheila Cary Meagher. "It's prostituting our whole process to serve up our kids to something we know is not good for them."
Sure, stipulations were added that there be no logos, that nutritional info be posted, that school consultations take place come September and, as always, that schools have the option of refusing a machine. But with the prospect of earing $5,000 to $25,000 per machine, few have and few will. Pepsi was back. The window, it seemed, had closed. But how?
Debbie Field of Foodshare feels the board missed a perfect opportunity to act. "This isn't the first year of Harris - it's the first year of McGuinty, which makes this all a bit more stupid." Adds Field, "Ten years ago we didn't know what we now know about childhood obesity." If teens guzzle two cans of cola a day, she says, they're consuming a giant Mason jar's worth of sugar a week.
Of course, everyone says they're trying to tackle obesity and promote healthy lifestyles. But when you talk to the Ministry of Health, they say to talk to the Toronto board of health, and when you talk to the board of health reps, they say they didn't act because the timing was off. They weren't aware of the school board's debate, says health board member Joe Mihevc, till days before. "We're glad to take a position on this, but the ship has passed."
Adds Mihevc, "Is Pepsi a welcome addition to our families of schools? Absolutely not. It's a terrible thing that has happened and cannot be defended on any grounds from a public health point of view. Having said that, sometimes people do strange things when they don't have money, and I'm not going to sit in judgment."
The behaviour seems even stranger when you find out the board expects an $8-million surplus this year, though trustees say they can't bank on that money until they see it in writing, pencilled into the budget - something the new backlogged provincial government has delayed doing until later this summer. Besides, says trustee Irene Atkinson, who also changed her vote at the last minute to favour the Pepsi deal, "That surplus is fast being depleted." Money's already earmarked, in part to stave of layoffs.
Education Minister Gerard Kennedy is cool to suggestions that the province should have stepped in to offer more funding. "If the board is getting a million dollars (a year) from the Pepsi contract, that's purely the choice of the board."
But why not use this opportunity to take a stand against the student obesity epidemic and initiate a province-wide policy on pop in high schools, as the minister and the Libs in general did for elementary and middle schools (which will be phasing in a cola ban come September)?
When it comes to intervening in the Toronto agenda, Kennedy tells NOW, "I don't think it's my Big Brother responsibility to regulate the debate."
As for extending the province-wide cola ban to high schools, Kennedy says it's complicated. "We just don't think we have quite the same kind of suasion with teens. Moving machines out (of high schools) is not going to accomplish a great deal." At the same time, he admits that the ministry does fall short when it comes to educating kids about making healthy choices. "I think that's a sensitive area for us all. I mean. we don't have a standard mandate to provide nutrition." But he says they're looking into it.
Admittedly, the elementary school ban was far simpler. Everyone agreed selling to 10-year-olds is bad, and with so few machines in those schools, the move was largely symbolic.
But, some critics ask, what's the difference between a grade 8 and a grade 9 student? Teen brains and bodies, says Cathy Dandy of the Toronto Parent Network, experience the second-fastest rate of development after infants. "I don't see why a public education system would pick that time to concede the fight."
The school board's refusal to take this on in the interim, says Dandy, means that once again the onus has been downloaded onto individual parents and schools.
Beverage lobby Refreshments Canada says the bottom line is that withdrawing soft drinks from vending machines isn't the answer. Only 9 per cent of soft drinks, it says, are consumed at school.
"Then there's no problem in getting rid of them altogether," retorts Dandy. "They won't feel a loss in profits."