February 2nd, 2006

A Plan to Can the Soda

By Mark Pazniokas
Hartford Courant

A compromise by [Connecticut] Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell and the Senate’s top Democrat could yield some of the nation’s strongest restrictions on junk food in public schools—one of last year’s most contentious legislative issues.

Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, and the Rell administration announced an effort Wednesday to ban soda and encourage healthier snacks and meals in schools.

The bill mandates the soda ban and encourages other changes by tripling the current nickel-per-meal school lunch subsidy for districts that adhere to new state nutrition standards.

``What we have today to announce is the best and the strongest bill in terms of standards for nutritious beverages in the country,’’ Williams said. ``We have a complete ban on soda from high school, middle school and elementary school.’’

The bill will be introduced in the three-month legislative session that opens next Wednesday and ends in May.

Williams said that Connecticut would be the first state to ban soda from all public schools. Other states have limited bans.

Rell’s endorsement defuses a potential campaign issue—her veto of a school nutrition bill last year, which prompted accusations from child advocates that she had sided with the beverage and snack industry at the expense of child nutrition.

The governor framed her veto as a defense of local control of schools, a reaction to a requirement that every elementary school provide at least 20 minutes for recess to encourage exercise. The recess requirement is absent from the new bill.

The junk-food legislation unexpectedly became one of last year’s most heavily lobbied and bitterly debated issues.

The Senate passed the bill, 24-12. It cleared the House on an 88-55 vote, but only after Republicans mounted an eight-hour filibuster. Soda and snack-food companies spent $250,000 lobbying against the bill, which they feared would set a national precedent, Williams said.

Coke and Pepsi are represented at the state Capitol by Sullivan & LeShane and Gaffney Bennett, two of the state’s top-billing lobbying firms.

Jay Malcynsky of Gaffney Bennett declined to comment Wednesday, saying that he needed to review the bill and consult his client, Pepsi. Sullivan & LeShane could not be reached Wednesday evening.

Last year, Williams amended his bill to allow the sale of diet soda to blunt opposition. The new bill would impose a total ban during the school day on the sale of soda and sports drinks. School cafeterias and vending machines would be limited to the sale of water, low-fat or skim milk, non-dairy milk and juice.

The bill would not affect meals offered as part of the federally funded school lunch program, but it would encourage schools to limit a la carte offerings to state-approved, nutritious fare.

Soda still could be sold by concessionaires at after-school events.

Rell did not attend a late-afternoon press conference announcing the compromise, but she was represented by her education commissioner, Betty J. Sternberg, who endorsed the measure without reservation.

``To say it succinctly, healthy kids are smart kids,’’ Sternberg said. ``If we have healthy youngsters, that provides the foundation for having high-achieving youngsters.’’

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