By KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
While educators support a current ban on selling sugary drinks to students, local lawmakers feel a new bill banning the sale of soft drinks to teachers, staff and others in schools is an overextension of legislative power.
While state law currently prohibits the sale of soft drinks to students during school hours, a House Bill 2461 would prohibit the sale of any soft drink in any school vending machine, including machines only available to staff and faculty in teacher’s lounges.
Kellan Sarles, information specialist with Mercer County Schools, said by state law only water, milk and some fruit and vegetable drinks are allowed to be sold to students but soft drinks are available for teachers and school staff.
“Our vending machines accessible to students do not sell soft drinks,” Sarles said. “They do sell water and fruit drinks. Only vending machines in teacher’s lounges are allowed to have soft drinks or sodas in them, and I don’t know if many of those do. It is part of policy we have in place to prevent students from purchasing sugary drinks during school hours. The policy only allows schools to sell water, 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice, and milk.”
Pam Reid, director of School Nutrition Programs for Mercer County Schools, said the policy has been beneficial to students.
“We sell bottle water only in our vending machines and only have machines in a couple of schools,” Reid said. “We are very happy about that. I believe this policy was originally introduced as part of a dietary consideration. Our entire children’s nutrition office based out of Charleston is concerned about helping kids, teaching them healthy habits and battling childhood obesity. This is a great thing for our kids.”
However, Delegate Dr. Joe Ellington, R-Mercer, said he feels extending the soda ban to faculty lounges and other areas not accessible by students might be an overreach of state power. Ellington serves as the minority chair of the House of Delegates Health and Human Resources Committee, where the bill was sent for review after being introduced.
“The bill is not the committee’s agenda yet, but it is something we are looking at,” Ellington said. “My understanding is they want to repeal the part of the code that gives schools the option to even offer soft drinks in the teachers’ lounges. I have mixed feelings about that. It gets into dictating to adults what they can drink or not. This also takes away local control of the school boards and places it in Charleston. I think we are trying to get away from concentrating the power in Charleston.”
As a medical professional, Ellington said he would prefer the schools encourage health education rather than an outright ban of items deemed unhealthy.
“From the medical side, I am all for helping the kids,” he said. “I don’t have a problem with them providing healthy alternatives to the kids in schools. I think they also need to look at getting outside and doing physical exercise. It is hard to legislate behavior like that. Educating them and teaching them the pros and cons of healthy lifestyle is one thing, but dictating what they can and can’t do is another. The next step seems to me is taking away the freedom of choice of what items students can pack in their lunch.”
Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, said he feels the overall ban limits the freedom of choice for teachers and older students.
“Personally, I don’t think I can be supportive of that bill,” Gearheart said. “While it is was originally intended to keep soft drinks out of the hands of kids, I don’t know if this is something possible nor is it the role of the school system. I don’t know if soft drinks are unhealthy but they are not necessary healthy. It is a matter of choice, and I don’t think we need to micromanage things that don’t need to be micromanaged. It restricts sale in teachers’ lounges, and I don’t know if that is something we should do. It seems like a government overreach. I don’t have a problem with them selling soft drinks in high schools. For younger kids, we might should limit their intake, but high schoolers are almost adults so I don’t feel we should restrict their usage.”
— Contact Kate Coil at email@example.com