After a state rule change last fall that allowed Colorado high schools to sell diet soda after a seven-year ban, many of the state’s big school districts have decided to stay soda-free.
Officials in six of Colorado’s 10 largest districts — Denver, Douglas County, Cherry Creek, Boulder Valley, Poudre and Colorado Springs 11 — say there are no plans to allow diet soda sales.
In some cases, such as Boulder, the district’s existing wellness policy already bans the soft drinks. In others, such as Poudre, the superintendent’s cabinet made the decision in the fall. In Denver, the district’s Health Advisory Council has recommended a continued prohibition of diet soda, but the school board hasn’t voted on the recommendation yet.
“We really commend the districts that are strengthening their own policies to continue to disallow diet soda,” said Sarah Kurz, vice president of policy and communications for the advocacy group LiveWell Colorado.
Three of the 10 largest districts — Aurora, Jeffco and Adams 12 — haven’t decided yet whether to bring back diet soda. Adams 12 officials say they’re gathering feedback from the district’s health advisory committee, 42 school wellness committees and all building principals. When that process is complete, any proposed changes will go through a policy-making process that ends with a recommendation to the superintendent.
Jeffco administrators say they’ll also collect data and public input before deciding whether to update the district’s wellness policy to ban diet soda. Aurora officials said there’s no timeline for a decision.
The St. Vrain district was the only one that declined to provide information about its diet soda plans.
“At this time, St. Vrain Valley Schools has no comment regarding this topic,” spokesman Matthew Wiggins wrote via email.
The diet soda issue popped up last summer shortly after new federal rules came out governing certain types of school food. Under those rules, diet soda can be sold to high-schoolers from vending machines and school stores. Colorado’s stricter rules — in place since 2009 — ban all types of soda in schools.
But officials at the state education department who brought the proposed rule change to the State Board of Education said the change would better align state and federal rules and reduce schools’ regulatory burden. Regular soda is still banned in schools because it exceeds maximum calorie limits under both sets of rules.
In August, and again in September, the State Board of Education voted 4-3 along party lines to change Colorado’s “Healthy Beverage Policy” and allow diet soda in high schools. Republican members in favor of the rule change said the seven-year ban hadn’t cut obesity and that it’s the job of parents not schools to ensure kids make healthy choices.
A coalition of health groups, including LiveWell Colorado, lamented the decision, arguing that diet soda has no nutritional value, harms teeth and diverts students from drinking healthier beverages like water.
Kurz said with the recent change in the state board’s composition — Democrats now hold a majority — it’s possible a vote now would go in favor of a diet soda ban. Still, with lots of big education issues looming, she doesn’t expect the board to take up the issue again.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.