Sunday, July 6, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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More ammo in junk-food wars

It is difficult to imagine soft-drink makers ending up in the same boat as tobacco companies, shelling out hundreds of millions to settle health-related lawsuits.

Nicotine has been scientifically proven to be unhealthy and addictive. A constant diet of soda pop is an unhealthy habit. But a threat to sue the Seattle School District for contributing to obesity by providing vending machines full of sodas doesn't need legal standing to call attention to a real problem.

Thank goodness, the spotlight has been turned on the problem of junk food in schools.

School officials question if their role is to worry about children's nutrition. The answer is a resounding "yes." Selling sugary, caffeinated beverages without healthier alternatives contributes to the growing problem of obesity and poor health among young people.

The World Health Organization has linked obesity to soft-drink consumption. Fast-food outlets are hawking salads alongside their regular, fat-laden fare.

The most significant progress in the war against junk food is the decision by Kraft Foods to reduce sugar and fat in food products and shrink some portions. Kraft, the nation's largest food company, will also stop marketing to schools and limit vending-machine sales.

Company officials said they are merely fulfilling their role in protecting consumer health. Jot that down, Seattle School Board.

The board postponed a vote on extending Coca-Cola's exclusive contract with Seattle's public middle and high schools. But a decision must be made sometime and it ought to be made with a nod toward healthier fare in schools.

No one is suggesting in tough economic times the district walk away from $400,000 in commissions and payments.

A compromise would be ideal. Other districts have done so. Last year, the Los Angeles School Board halted soft-drink sales during school hours in its schools. New York City banned soda and fruit drinks made with less than 100 percent fruit. New York City is also revamping its lunch menu to make it more nutritional.

In our state, Rep. Eileen Cody, Democrat from West Seattle, was unsuccessful last session in requiring districts to structure vending contracts with a price advantage for healthier fare and a price penalty for the empty calories of soda pop and junk food. Keeping the machines but adding healthier choices represents a smart compromise the Legislature should revisit.

Meanwhile, Seattle's School Board should follow Cody's lead.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company


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