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Kara’s Korner: The Public Schools’ Dark, Unhealthy Secret

“The Reason Public Schools are Filled with Unhealthy Food & Beverages” was originally posted by hint Founder & CEO, Kara Goldin, on LinkedIn here:

In my last article, I shared how many employers have contractual agreements with the big soda companies to primarily offer soda in their offices rather than healthy beverages. While you may think that you are getting a variety of options in your cafeteria or break room, chances are very high that you are only getting the options that the soda beverage giants want you to have.

But it’s not only your office that these contracts affect. It’s your child’s school as well. It’s time to uncover the public schools’ dark, unhealthy secret.

Yep, that’s right. The institution you send your children to every day to be nurtured and cared for may have contracts with big soda brands. The majority of schools do. These contracts give the vendor control of what is served in the schools, allowing them to fill the school cafeteria and vending machines with unhealthy products like potato chips and sweetened beverages.

Luckily, initiatives like Alliance for a Healthier Generation have made it their mission to remove sugars from schools by setting guidelines on what can be served. However, many companies have been able to get around these rules by putting low-calorie or zero-calorie sweeteners in their products. Sometimes they put their products into smaller containers so that they are within the approved amount of sugar. The big soda companies use these tactics to continue to push their products into schools. The school isn’t necessarily to blame; they’ve been duped by the big beverage companies, just like some of us have been.

My company, hint water, got close to offering healthy beverage options in public schools when we were accepted into New York City’s public school system. But when we were ready to distribute, we hit a wall. We learned that one of the two soda giants was their beverage distributor, and they refused to distribute our products — not surprising since it would hurt their sales. There was no way we would get into these public schools without having an alliance with the soda giant, which obviously didn’t make sense for either party.

Sadly, it’s not just the big soda companies that are pushing for unhealthy options in public schools. The United States Dairy Association was enlisted in the process to help write the guidelines for what beverages are acceptable in many public schools. Sounds great, right? Milk is good for your growing child! The milk board did attempt to make schools healthier, but not without pushing their product. They banned carbonated drinks to eliminate soda and boost milk sales, but they didn’t ban sugar or sweeteners. Therefore, they kept selling chocolate milk to kids — which has 58 grams of sugar and 400 calories in a 16 ounce bottle. Clever, huh? Yet a product like our hint fizz, which has no calories, no sugar, and no diet sweeteners, couldn’t go into the schools since it is carbonated. Since then, they have reversed the carbonation ban, which is a blessing and a curse, but chocolate milk is still served.

The lesson to be learned is that these big companies are working towards creating a healthy perception, not a healthy reality. They will do anything to make you thinkthey are nourishing you and your family, but they won’t turn their backs on their own products. However, you don’t have to accept an unhealthy reality. Just like these brands, you can find a way around the system, and here’s how.

• Know these brands and what products they sell. They might say they are putting a Dasani machine in your child’s school, but who owns Dasani? Coke. Meaning, it is likely you will find soda or Vitamin Water in that machine as well. Go into the school and take a look around; don’t let the brand on the vending machine fool you.

• Pack your child’s lunch; it’s as simple as that. Get your kids to avoid the vending machines and cafeteria by supplying them with the nourishment they need to get through the day.

• Talk to your school and school associations like the PTA. Ask them to provide healthier beverages, and to scale back their partnerships with soda companies. If they have to have some sort of vending contract, suggest signing with United Natural Foods Inc., a major natural products distributor that offers healthier products, or going direct with products you like and know are healthy.

I truly believe that schools want to be doing what’s right for the kids, and may feel locked into contracts with soda companies that have been around for decades. It takes work and guts to change the system, and we can all help make our schools a healthier ecosystem for our kids by actively talking to administrations and seeking better solutions.

– Kara