No Pepsi Challenge

As expected, the state Board of Education on Wednesday ended a seven-year ban on the sale of diet sodas in high schools, but District 51 officials wisely — if not somewhat cynically — elected not to dismantle the local prohibition in place.

To do so would require a local policy review, public feedback forums, input from a registered dietician and a vote of the D51 school board — members of which expressed varying degrees of annoyance that diet sodas had risen to the level of a serious policy debate.

It’s not difficult to understand why. The district has far more pressing issues to contend with and has no interest in fixing something that’s not broken — which underscores how out of kilter the state board’s priorities are.

Diet sodas and nutrition standards became a partisan squabble of questionable value due to the contradictory messages about local control at the heart of the debate.

Republicans voted to align the state’s Healthy Beverage Policy with federal standards. The state standards were higher, so the vote lowered the bar to allow for diet sodas in vending machines on school grounds. Republicans argued that aligning standards still allowed for each school district to adopt its own standard, so the vote was merely a reduction in red tape.

Democrats argued that Colorado had gone through the trouble of crafting standards to ensure a healthy learning environment for students. Falling back to the lower standard runs counter to the notion that states should have more say about how schools operate than the federal government. (Do we call this federal underreach?)

Ultimately, it’s a non-issue in District 51 because nobody on the board has any interest in making diet sodas available in schools. As Dan Sharp, director of nutrition services, noted, open campuses mean high school students who want diet sodas will access them regardless of the policy.

Thankfully, the D51 board isn’t using that as a justification to open the door to the soft drink industry. Sodas, juices and sugary drinks have been implicated as leading contributors to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay. Sodas have no nutritional value and we think they have no place in our schools.

Board member Greg Mikolai summed up our feeling on the great diet soda debate:

“Really, this is going to occupy (the state board’s) time? This is ridiculous that we have entities where the most important thing they’re focusing on is diet soda. My own personal feeling as a board member, and I don’t speak for the rest of the board, is that I don’t feel the need to have diet sodas available in vending machines in high schools. ... Let’s provide them with healthy alternatives.”

The health and wellness of students took a backseat to partisan posturing among board members who can’t seem to agree what their focus should be. Hint: It isn’t diet sodas. How about fully preparing students for college and the rigors of an increasingly demanding job market?


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