The debate over junk food in school vending machines is pretty straight forward: Are the taxes produced by the sale of snacks and soft drinks worth fostering an unhealthy diet among young people? It's a never-ending argument and one that suggests the authority over the question is well placed with elected school boards.
More and more school districts have taken to selling "pouring rights" to soft drink companies as a way to defray the public costs of education. At least 10 districts in the Buffalo-Niagara region do it, and the practice is provoking an outcry that is altogether predictable and reasonable. In a nation of overeating, under-exercising youngsters, we are, at best, sending a mixed message.
But the response is no less understandable. It's food we're talking about, not drugs or cigarettes. Moderation is possible. Parents and schools can exercise control over access, and the revenue can make a difference both to hard-pressed taxpayers and to students, who may have better experiences because of the revenue generated by the machines.
It is truly a matter of priorities, and it's why the issue ought to be handled locally. State and federal officials may offer useful guidelines on the subject (Albany offers a model contract it recommends that districts review before making any commitments) but the question of whether to allow this kind of fund-raising is best suited to the people most directly involved -- taxpayers, through the school boards they elect. Who better can answer the relevant questions:
How badly does this district need the extra money?
What will we gain by allowing these machines and what will we give up by prohibiting them?
What are the possible unintended consequences?
How can we regulate use of the machines?
What more can we do to encourage a healthy lifestyle?
The state is properly concerned with issues such as keeping soft drinks out of classrooms, preventing commercial needs from interfering with educational requirements and ensuring that contracts do not prevent students from bringing their own snacks and beverages to school. Beyond that, though, Albany has left this matter to school districts. That's the best way.
Certainly, schools should approach the matter thoughtfully, since it is unquestionably important to instill good eating habits during youth. And they might want to keep contracts reasonably short, to preserve the right of the board, taxpayers and parents to change policy without waiting as long as the 10 years some of these contracts run.
Those caveats aside, though, no one need object if school districts in this high-tax state look for creative, socially acceptable ways to help pay for the education of their students. We should be encouraging that kind of activity, not fretting about it.