June 8th, 2003

PTA Backing by Coke Keeps Soda War Bubbling

By Rick Karlin
Albany Times Tribune

Capital Region PTA members are having a difficult time swallowing news that
Coca-Cola has become the latest sponsor of the National Parent Teacher Organization.

In light of the current debate over obesity among children, some are angry
that their parent organization has taken on a soda bottler as partner.

"No way," said Onnolee Smith, president of Albany’s city council
PTA. "They couldn’t have come up with something better?"

Taking on a soft drink as a sponsor is likely to become a hot topic among PTA
members during the next few months. Opponents note that the partnership is starting
just as schools across the nation are rethinking the wisdom of allowing soda
and junk food sales in their cafeterias. It’s part of a nascent backlash against
the spate of pouring rights contracts a few years ago, when bottlers paid schools
for the right to set up soda machines.

Coca-Cola Enterprises, the Dallas-based group of soda bottlers, is sponsoring
the Parent Involvement, Schools of Excellence Certification, a program to foster
more parental interaction with their children’s schools. They also are sponsoring
a booth devoted to fitness and health at this summer’s PTA convention in North
Carolina.

News of the sponsorship arrangement was announced last month and the thousands
of local PTA groups nationwide are just learning of it.

"I haven’t taken much time to digest the information," said Debbie
Allen, president of the Shenendehowa school district PTA council. "I’m
really just learning about it at this point."

But a national organization that monitors commercial activity in the schools
has already taken aim at the agreement and says it should be canned.

"Instead of promoting the welfare of children, the National PTA is promoting
the welfare of a corporation that seeks to fill them with sugar and caffeine,"
charged Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, an Oregon group
that opposes the use of commercial influences in the schools.

Neither Coca-Cola nor the National PTA would say how much money is involved
in the sponsorship. Both said the idea is not promote soft drinks or other products
offered by the bottlers.

"This is about community involvement," said Debbie Moody, vice president
of public affairs for Coca-Cola Enterprises.

"We have relationships with a wide variety of organizations," added
Vickie Loise, the National PTA’s development director. As part of the sponsorship,
Coca-Cola is providing literature such as brochures and written guides about
increasing parental involvement. Moody added that the literature will be free
of large, obvious logos.

Much of this bubbling controversy is due to the growing public concern about
the degree of obesity among our nation’s youth.

"There is a direct link between soda consumption and childhood obesity,"
Ruskin said.

The federal government has tightened standards for subsidized school breakfasts
and lunches. States like Texas and California have passed laws that limit the
sale of soda and junk foods in the schools.

In New York, where legislators have offered several similar measures, some
lawmakers wonder about the PTA sponsorship.

"What are they getting? What’s the quid pro quo?," said Assemblywoman
Sandra Galef, D-Ossining, sponsor of a bill to restrict the use of junk food
vending machines in schools.

Others see parallels with a debate that raged a few years ago, and still occasionally
comes up - the granting by schools of exclusive pouring rights to soft drink
companies. Coca-Cola or Pepsi have won exclusivity rights in return for cash
and furnishing of scoreboards and other items.

Capital Region schools including Brittonkill, East Greenbush, Schenectady,
Cohoes and Niskayuna have approved the deals.

Others, including Ballston Lake, Averill Park and Mechanicville, have said
no to the offers.

"We’re always concerned about such deals, particularly when they get down
to the school level," said Dennis Tompkins, spokesman for New York State
United Teachers, the state’s largest teachers union.

Most people agree that the PTA image is appealing. National PTA sponsors have
included Microsoft and Disney.

"It’s a nice clean image, to be in the PTA," remarked Jeff Brown,
a Delmar PTA member. "Who doesn’t like the PTA?"

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