After a seven-year ban, diet soda would get the green light to return to high school vending machines if the State Board of Education approves proposed changes to state beverage rules next month.
Education department officials say they are making the recommendation to align Colorado rules with new federal rules and reduce schools’ regulatory burden.
But a host of health-minded organizations are pushing back against the proposal, saying the state was ahead of the curve when it launched a policy banning soda and diet soda from schools in 2009 and is now poised to give a drink laced with artificial sweeteners a new toehold among teens.
“We just think our state has already done great work on this and it doesn’t make sense to roll it back,” said Leslie Levine, technical assistance and research manager at the advocacy group Livewell Colorado.
The proposed beverage rules, which the State Board will consider at its Aug. 10 meeting in Grand Junction, grew out of a regular review of state policies, officials said. If approved, they would take effect by the 2017-18 school year at the latest.
Even if the State Board gives the go-ahead for diet soda in high schools, individual districts could decide not to stock the drinks.
Still, critics of the proposed rules worry about dangling unhealthy beverages in front of students and tempting cash-strapped schools with the promise of new soft drink revenue.
Diet soda, though low in calories, has no nutritional value, harms teeth and diverts students from drinking healthier beverages like water, they argue.
“Allowing diet soda in schools just provides an unnecessary marketing opportunity to an industry that has fueled the obesity epidemic, and the tooth decay epidemic, I might add,” said Wyatt Hornsby, campaign director for Delta Dental Of Colorado Foundation.
The foundation is among more than a dozen groups ranging from health advocacy organizations to the Colorado PTA that have signed a letter urging State Board members to reconsider the diet soda proposal.
Colorado’s Healthy Beverage policy, originally passed by the State Board of Education in 2008, includes numerous provisions governing the type, size and calorie count of beverages allowed in schools outside of the federally regulated school meal program.
At the time, there were no federal rules governing such beverages, but that changed in 2014 when preliminary federal rules—called Smart Snacks in Schools standards—were approved. Just last week, the United States Department of Agriculture released the final version of the those rules.
Opponents of Colorado’s proposed rule changes say the federal rules represent the lowest bar states must clear, and don’t prevent stronger state-level policies.
“This is Colorado,” said Hornsby. “We pride ourselves on being the healthiest state in the nation so we need to aim higher.”
The current proposal to relax the beverage rules for the K-12 system comes just six months after Colorado significantly tightened beverage rules for kids in child care—banning all soda, flavored milks and sports drinks, and allowing 100 percent fruit juice just twice a week.
To some advocates, the conflicting efforts are perplexing.
But there’s also widespread recognition that many high-schoolers already have the independence and purchasing power to buy any sweet drink they want at the corner store.
School district officials have varying opinions on the proposed changes.
Ann Cooper, Boulder’s food service director, said via email she doesn’t think two sets of beverage guidelines—one federal and one state— would be onerous for districts. She also said diet soda shouldn’t be allowed in schools.
Kara Sample, assistant director of nutrition services in Weld County District 6, supports aligning Colorado’s Healthy Beverage policy to federal rules. She likened Colorado’s rules to an onion, with several layers of requirements that can be confusing to vendors and school district personnel.
Still, she said she was saddened that diet soda is allowable under the federal rules and that she’d be happy with a prohibition on diet soda in the new Colorado rules if that was one of the only major differences from federal rules.