Diet drama

Soda ban fizzles: Protesters disrupt meeting after vote allowing diet drinks back in Colorado schools

Members of the group Westwood Unidos, hold up signs of protest in the lobby of the State Board of Education. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Diet soda will be allowed to return to Colorado high schools after a seven-year ban, a fractured State Board of Education decided Wednesday at a tense meeting interrupted by a protest and security guards intervening.

The 4-3 vote — with the board’s conservative majority tipping the balance — mirrored the board’s preliminary vote in August reopening the door to diet soda in school vending machines and stores.

The outcome represents a defeat for a coalition of health advocates who had ramped up efforts in recent weeks to oppose the measure, arguing that diet soda has no place in the state’s “Healthy Beverage Policy” for schools.

Education department officials said they recommended changes to the Healthy Beverage policy, including the new provision allowing diet soda in high schools, to align Colorado rules with new federal rules and reduce schools’ regulatory burden. Even with the change, individual districts can decide not to stock the drinks.

Opponents of the rule change garnered more than 2,400 signatures on an online petition and showed up in force Wednesday, with parents and students speaking out against the rule change.

“Obesity and kids’ health is a complex issue that can’t be solved overnight,” said Leslie Levine, a research manager for LiveWell Colorado, a nonprofit that promotes healthy eating and living. “To address it requires all of us — parents, community and schools — working together.”

A group of about a dozen Spanish-speaking parents from southwest Denver pleaded with the State Board to keep the ban. They told the board that while they try to practice healthy habits at home, students have too many unhealthy options at schools.

“We need you to support the work we do at home,” parent Ana Maria Munoz said through a translator.

School nutrition officials from some of the state’s largest school districts, however, told the State Board that the change would reduce the regulatory burden while allowing school districts to maintain their own wellness policies.

“Nutrition is a community-based decision and we need (community) input to help us make decisions,” said Danielle Bock, operations coordinator for the Greeley school district’s nutrition department.

Wednesday’s decision contrasts with a tide of recent efforts that aim to reduce Coloradans’ consumption of sweet drinks. The right-leaning State Board, however, believes it’s the responsibility of parents and not the public sector to curb unhealthy habits.

“There’s not a better regulator for this conduct than the parent,” said board chairman Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican.

Moments after the State Board voted, a group of parents organized by the activist group Padres y Jovenes Unidos stormed the chambers to voice frustration with the outcome.

“Please think about the students. Think about the future of the students,” said Gloria Borunda, who led the protest.

Durham called a recess and a security guard asked the crowd to leave.

Over the years, many advocates have lauded the state’s Healthy Beverage Policy for putting Colorado ahead of the curve. Healthy students are better learners, they say.

The beverage policy — passed by the State Board of Education in 2008 with a complete soda prohibition — governs 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. Opponents of diet soda in schools say those federal rules represent the lowest bar states must clear, and don’t prevent stronger state-level policies.

Wednesday’s vote comes six weeks before Boulder voters will consider levying a sales tax on soda and less than a year after Colorado significantly tightened beverage rules for kids in child care by banning all soda, flavored milks and sports drinks.

catching some zzzzs

One Colorado district moving toward later high school start times — maybe — while another shelves the idea

PHOTO: Chellseyy, Creative Commons

Of the two large Colorado school districts that were actively exploring later high school start times for the 2017-18 school year, one is moving ahead and one has dropped the idea for now.

The 55,000-student Cherry Creek district — the state’s fourth largest — continues to consider proposed start- and end-time changes at all school levels. While the district is still collecting community feedback, the current proposal would set elementary school start times at 7:55 a.m., middle school start times at 8:50 a.m. and high school start times at 8:15 a.m.

Currently, Cherry Creek elementary schools start about 9 a.m., middle schools start about 8 a.m. and high schools start about 7 am. A recommendation will go before the Cherry Creek school board this spring.

Meanwhile, the 31,000-student Boulder Valley school district won’t change school start times next year because of the complexity of managing school bus schedules and the prospect of higher transportation costs, district spokesman Briggs Gamblin wrote via email.

Changes are still possible for the 2018-19 school year if the district can find a way to keep transportation costs at their current levels, he wrote.

The push for later high school start times has gained steam nationally with increasing evidence that when school schedules match with teen sleep rhythms, students are healthier, more focused, attend school more regularly and do better academically. In the last two years, both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have come out in favor of start times of 8:30 a.m. or after.

In districts that have considered changing high school start times or actually changed them, the logistics of bus schedules and after-school sports are typically the biggest hurdles.

In Colorado, some smaller districts, including the Montezuma-Cortez district in southwest Colorado and the Harrison district in Colorado Springs, have pushed start times to 8:30 a.m. or after for some or all secondary schools.

But large districts have been slower to join the club. Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest school district, briefly explored later start times for some high schools a couple years ago, but the effort did not lead to any changes.

In the Boulder Valley district, a task force spent the 2015-16 school year researching later high school start times, with one of the group’s leaders saying last August she hoped the district could move forward with changes in 2017-18.

In Cherry Creek, where changes to school start and end times have also been under consideration over the last year, a November survey on the topic drew 25,000 responses.

Seventy-three percent of respondents said they wanted high school start times to align more closely to the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation. When respondents were asked to pick between six high school schedule scenarios, the 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m. scenario was most popular — garnering more than 7,000 votes.

No thanks

Diet Nope: Colorado’s large districts still keeping diet soda out of high schools

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.