June 24, 2001
Resist Pepsi's Generation of Revenue
By Suzanne Martinson
On Wednesday, the Pittsburgh Public Schools board will decide whether they're going to sell out to Pepsi-Cola. It's a heady price: a projected $2.6 million over five years.
Some aren't buying. At the board's June 13 meeting, Darby Kaighin-Shields of Squirrel Hill, a graduate of Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, spooned out 10 teaspoons of sugar to show how much is contained in a bottle of Pepsi. Ten teaspoons! Even unscrupulous dentists desperately seeking cavities couldn't help but be concerned about this surge of sucrose.
So we're on your side, Darby. Kids have enough temptations to fall into poor eating habits without their schools becoming part of the problem.
Darby knows money talks. "The amount of money they're putting up looks good, and the schools aren't funded well enough, but this is not the right solution."
Leslie Bonci said it's not so much the soda, but what it's replacing in kids' diets. "Being a dietitian and being a mom, and knowing how kids are, it's hard to compete against the message that soda is cool, and Britney Spears is advertising it.
"The schools are looking at this to generate revenue. What happened to the bake sale?"
The Pepsi question is at the heart of the not-so-subtle commercialism of the schools. Suck 'em in while they're still in school, and get a customer for life. "Their biggest market is me and my age group -- we're brand-loyal," the 18-year-old said.
The competitive soft drink industry buys fast-food joints to get exclusives for their brands. Now they want the same monopoly in our schools.
Unless it's a party, I don't think kids (or adults) ought to drink pop at meals. I'm in favor of bringing back the "empty calories" label that applies so perfectly to pop. The term refers to food or drink that provide calories but no other nutrients and is so apropos.
We asked Darby how he got involved. He wasn't mad that the schools weren't putting in his brand because he doesn't have one. He laughed. "I'm not working for Coke or anything. I'm a juice guy -- orange, cranberry juice, you name it."
Students often get "free stuff," he said, but few that "would make a better learning environment. What does Pepsi have to do with education? I'm not a caffeine freak."
Darby tuned in to a Web site for the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education and distributed some of its materials Monday at a free event at the Vietnam Veterans Pavilion in Schenley Park. The sponsor was Redtape Productions, which he described as a production company he founded with friend Mike Tanzer to do benefit shows. "We're always looking for new causes. We try to practice activism through music."
Another Redtape player is Bernadette Moreno, who was cooking and selling burgers and hot dogs, as skateboarders demonstrated their moves inside the pavilion Monday when we stopped by. We found a bunch of nice kids in an atmosphere of high-volume music but low-key activism. More party than protest.
Later, a rep from the Oakland, Calif.-based Commercial-Free group worked the teen crowd. (In the '60s, opponents to civil rights would probably have labeled her an "outside agitator.")
According to its Unplug! zine, Commercial-Free grew out of the opposition to Channel One, a company that provides "free" closed circuit TVs to school districts -- with strings attached. In this case, the strings are two minutes of advertisements in a 12-minute daily "news" show beamed into classrooms. There's no fast-forwarding through these ads.
Call me Pollyanna, but I think commercials ought to be left at the schoolhouse door.
Making ends meet by selling out the students is nothing new, of course. When we lived in a poor school district in East Tennessee, we discovered that school pictures were taken twice a year. We were puzzled until we learned that the kickbacks from school photographers provided a principal's "discretionary" fund for school trips and equipment. Some argued this was good because there wasn't enough money available otherwise, but it also meant poor children couldn't afford pictures at such inflated prices.
Where will commercialism stop? Once kids are limited to Pepsi products, won't other brands want their piece of the pie? Will Allderdice become the Dunkin' Donut Dragons? Will culinary students be required to call peanut butter cookies "Skippy"? I figure Hunt's Ketchup lovers will have to smuggle in their preferred condiments at Heinz Field.
Will it ever end? No time soon, judging from the recorded message of the 2001 Allegheny County Fair, this year "presented by Valvoline Motor Oil."
Is nothing sacred? We have the choice whether to attend the fair, of course. Kids don't have the same option when it comes to school. Darby Kaighin-Shields needs five votes Wednesday. I hope he gets them.
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