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Kindergartners are taught to brush their teeth.

First-graders learn healthy eating habits.

Yet by high school, students across the Buffalo Niagara region -- like those throughout the country -- find soft drink machines in school hallways, Cheetos in the lunchroom and chocolate bars in the fund-raising boxes.

Some think that should change.

A new federal study says what mothers and dentists have preached for years: Schools are adding to childhood obesity and related problems by selling pop, candy and other unhealthy foods.

The federal study isn't likely to be acted upon any time soon. In fact, it would take an act of Congress to regulate food and drink sold outside the school cafeteria.

Still, the U.S. Department of Agriculture report is expected to encourage a nationwide debate on the issue, and that's drawing attention -- and some concern -- from some local school officials as well as parent and student fund-raising groups.

"It might have a (major) impact," said Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda Superintendent David A. Paciencia. "Your greatest profit-makers are candy and sweets."

"It sounds like someone searching for a simple solution to a complex issue," said Iroquois Schools Superintendent Michael Glover. "That never makes for good policy, no matter what you are talking about."

To some districts, there's more to this debate than healthy eating. It's also about money -- and not just the nickels and dimes that are made at bake sales.

About a dozen school districts in Erie and Niagara counties have contracts with Pepsi or Coca-Cola -- totaling more than $6 million -- giving the soft drink companies exclusive rights to sell their products on school grounds in return for cash.

What's more, in recent years the contracts have become an increasingly popular way to offset taxes.

In 1998, Lancaster's $1 million pouring rights contract -- spread out over 10 years -- with Coke was the first of its kind in the region. Within a year, Niagara-Wheatfield and Ken-Ton also struck 10-year deals ranging from $750,000 to more than $1 million.

And in 2000, deals were signed on almost a monthly basis. Holland, Grand Island, Niagara Falls, Cleveland Hill, Maryvale, Iroquois, Hamburg and West Seneca also entered into pouring rights deals.

And now Eden and Orchard Park are thinking about it.

Creative financing

School officials defend the contracts, arguing they're a creative way to get revenue.

Maryvale uses its pouring rights money to maintain its soccer fields.

Niagara Falls bought marching band uniforms and a new scoreboard at its new high school.

West Seneca uses its money to buy lights for the football field and to fund after-school clubs.

"(The clubs) rely pretty heavily on it," said West Seneca Superintendent Richard Sagar.

In fact, the National Soft Drink Association said the Pepsi and Coke deals serve a valuable role by providing money to financially stressed schools.

Association spokesman Sean McBride condemned the Department of Agriculture report as an erroneous document that turns pop into a scapegoat for school lunches' not being more popular with students.

School officials, meanwhile, insist that neither the pouring rights agreements nor the soft drink machines in schools encourages students to drink pop.

That, they say, is a personal choice.

"Somewhere along the line, kids ought to be able to make a decision," said Lancaster Schools Superintendent Joseph L. Girardi.

The soft drink machines, school officials note, were in the school before the contracts were signed. The only thing different now, they say, is that the machines sell the product of only one company.

In fact, school districts without pouring rights but with pop machines also rely on the profits the machines generate.

"When you don't have a real wealthy district, it's a way to help the kids out," said Benjamin L. Randle Jr., principal of Buffalo's Grover Cleveland High School.

The machines bring in $2,500 to $3,000 a year in profit, and the money is used to buy football and basketball shoes and uniforms, he said.

Federal study

The federal study concludes that lunches being offered in schools across the United States are high enough in nutrition, and even exceed federal requirements for key nutrients.

That was evident Wednesday in Hamburg Central High School, where Chad Campbell was among the students in the cafeteria. Chad's lunch consisted of pork chops, potatoes, pizza, chips, oranges and milk.

But the study goes on to say that junk food is also being sold in schools, sometimes in cafeterias, but also in vending machines. In addition, the study points to the increasing presence of pop in the schools, noting that students are sometimes spending money on junk food and pop instead of healthy food and drinks.

More than three-fourths of middle/junior and senior high schools in the United States have vending machines, the study found. Twenty percent of high schools nationwide had no restrictions on the machines.

New York State, cafeteria directors noted, has a junk food law, prohibiting certain items, including candy, from being sold in the lunchroom. Several local cafeteria directors said they can, and do, sell cookies, ice cream and snacks such as potato chips, Pringles and Cheetos on the cafeteria line.

State law also doesn't allow pop or vending machines in schools to operate until after the last lunch period of the day. Some schools go a step further and keep their machines off until the last regular class period of the day.

Campbell, the Hamburg senior, says he drinks three or four 20-ounce bottles of pop daily, with some or all of that consumed at school.

Selling candy as fund-raiser

Beyond school officials and students, others interested in the federal report are student and parent groups that sell candy and baked goods to raise money for schools.

At Orchard Park High School, for example, the DECA club operates a bookstore and sells some candy, said Richard Petrus, assistant superintendent for finance.

"I'm sure it would impact their sales," he said.

But at Williamsville East High School, PTA co-president Celeste Miller said the transition from cakes and cookies to more healthful snacks might not be as difficult as some assume.

She said her organization recently started offering healthful snacks such as cheese and crackers and grapes at PTA functions.

"It's been very popular," she said.

She also said bottled water is sometimes offered at school dances, along with pop, and that the water is far more popular.

"We've noticed if you give kids a choice, lots of times they will make the healthy choice," she said. "Maybe it's time for us to start thinking outside the box."

News Staff Reporters Harold McNeil and Barbara O'Brien contributed to this report.

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