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21st November

First Published in The New York Sun, November 21, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

   A few weeks ago, the city government declared that Snapple is our town’s official beverage and decreed that only Snapple vending machines should be placed in city public schools. However, an investigation by the city comptroller, William Thompson, suggests that the process to choose our official drink might not have been exactly fair — the rules and parameters appear to have shifted midway through the process. The comptroller further alleges that a key player in the selection — the city’s marketing consultant, Joseph Perello — had a conflict of interest that may have given Snapple the edge. 

    I’ll let Messrs. Bloomberg and Thompson duke this out in the larger arena, but I’m curious about the effect that the deal has had on the schools. I’ve gotten calls and e-mails from a number of teachers and principals complaining about the “Snapple police” coming to their schools. The Snapple folks wasted no time. Within days after the announcement, the Snapple army descended on the schools. In fact, one wonders how there were so many vending machines ready and waiting to be placed so quickly after the deal was made public. 
    In one elementary school, the principal told me that when the Snapple representative showed up, he pressured him to place a vending machine in the student cafeteria. When he refused, the Snapple rep told him that he had no choice — the machine must go in. 

    Many school lunchrooms in some of the older neighborhood schools are quite small because they were designed for just those children who ate in school. In years gone by, it was common practice for many children to go home for lunch. Not so today. Consequently, the lunchrooms in some of these older schools are tightly packed. Shifts of children typically move through the lunchrooms for several periods from midmorning to midafternoon. 

    This lunchroom was of this smaller variety. Not wishing to be totally dismissive, the principal informed the Snapple rep that there was no place to put the machine. The Snapple man insisted on seeing the cafeteria for himself. 

    “We’ll put it over there, where that refrigerator box is,” he said. “But that’s where the kids get their containers of milk,” replied the principal. “We never had a vending machine in our lunchroom before, and we’re not going to start now. End of discussion.” 

    Mr. Snapple fumed and left. 
    A week later, a truck pulls up to the school and a couple of workers wheel 
two Snapple machines into the school. The principal is furious. 
    “Who authorized you to deliver those machines?” 
    “We’ve got a signed contract. See, it’s signed by the principal.” 
    “I’m the principal. I didn’t sign anything. That’s not my signature; that’s not even my name. Take your machines and leave.” 
    They left. 
    A week later, a Snapple truck arrives to fill the two machines that were sent back. 
    Yet another week passes by and the Department of Education calls. 
    “We understand that you ordered two Snapple machines and then refused to accept delivery.” 
    And so it goes. 

    The principal has stood firm. To this day, he has resisted all pressure. His school is a Snapple-free zone. 
    According to the Council of Supervisors and Administrators, the union that represents the principals, this encounter was not unique. “Not all principals know that they can say no to Snapple. And there are those who know that they can say no, but are too intimidated to do so,” charged a CSA spokesperson, Richard Relkin. It would seem that in the big scheme of things, a vending machine in the school cafeteria is of little import. But according to our intrepid principal, it is the attention to just such details that helps him to avoid trouble. 

    “Firstly, virtually all of the children in my school are on free lunch,” he said. “We provide them with milk and juice. These are elementary school children, and they don’t need to feel any pressure to spend money that some of their parents can’t really afford to give them. Once little kids start bringing money to school, it opens up a Pandora’s box of lost money, stolen money, and disputes.” 

    He also expressed concern that even some of the “healthy” drinks will give some kids too much of a sugar rush. “I’m not sure we need to augment what the children are already drinking,” he said. “I have to believe that there is sugar of some type in many of the drinks.” 

    Finally, he noted that some students love to bop each other on the head with the empty plastic bottles. 
    “Some of these things may happen, some may not,” he said. “But there are 180 days in the school year and 675 kids in my school. That’s a lot of opportunity for all sorts of mischief and accidents. I believe in lowering the odds.” 

    When I asked why two machines were delivered, he told me that one was supposed to go into the teacher’s room, even though his teachers didn’t want it. They already had a vending machine that dispenses Coca-Cola, but they were being pressured to replace it. Apparently, teachers can keep their own machines for the time being, but not all of them realize this. 

    While I understand that we may not want to supply students with “unhealthy” drinks such as sodas, I have to believe that teachers are big boys and girls and can decide for themselves if they want to drink a Diet Coke. 

    I’m not against the idea of the city contracting with a beverage company,a sneaker company, or even a cereal company. I have nothing against Snapple other than the fact that they moved their factory from my home borough of the Bronx to suburban Westchester. 

    However, I think that the heavyhanded way the Snapple program is being imposed is a reflection of the same arrogant attitude that characterizes the manner in which the Department of Education made their curriculum and administrative changes. There’s got to be a kinder, gentler Tweed out there, one that even has tolerance for those of us from the Pepsi Generation who like to drink Diet Coke. Now that would be the real thing!

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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