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Stop school soda ban! Demand smarter options

Rather than removing soft drinks, “Today” food editor Phil Lempert says beverage companies should produce healthier ones.

With due respect to former President Clinton, the American Heart Association and all those well-intentioned individuals and organizations who for the past couple of years have outlawed selling sodas in schools, their efforts are misplaced.

Like many others, I’ve written extensively about these efforts and always with a positive light, offering my kudos along the way. America’s food and beverage companies are continuing their “nutritional correction” and are reformulating their ingredients to offer products that are better for our health and wellness.

Then why are we banning sodas and other beverages in our schools?

The reality of the controversy and situation came to me like a lightning bolt. This past Saturday, I found myself in the flagship Whole Foods market in Dublin, Ohio, surrounded by hundreds of shoppers packing their baskets with tens of thousands of minimally processed and organic foods. Out of nowhere, I wanted to scream out “stop, we need soda in our schools!” I stifled the urge for two reasons. First, I probably would have been escorted out by security before I finished touring what frankly is one of the best supermarkets in the country, and second, the other shoppers might well have stoned me with the cans and bottles that lined the shelves.

There is little doubt that our kids and teens will sneak their sodas into school and certainly continue to consume the product elsewhere. So what are we accomplishing? The head of Coca-Cola, in a recent Wall Street Journal interview, predicted (and lauded) a black market phenomenon in our schools, where his product would be sold at a premium price, and fuel a new kind of entrepreneurship.

The “new rules” of selling soda in schools just won’t work. Too complicated, too hard to monitor and at the same time may well create even greater desire for a forbidden product (remember when you were a kid?).

My epiphany came as I walked down the aisle in Whole Foods sandwiched between their fresh pizza stone oven, their prepared foods steam table and the refrigerated beverage case — in front of me were literally hundreds of carbonated beverages, none had high fructose corn syrup, many had fruit juice, and most had less calories than the more common supermarket brands. And there was the solution:

Why are we just not using Bill Clinton’s (and all these other powerful individuals and groups) persuasive powers to force Coca-Cola and Pepsi to produce healthier sodas to be put in our schools.

Our schools have come to depend on the revenue from these companies to clothe our sports teams, buy their computers and other school necessities; and frankly I think it’s a mistake to sever that relationship.

Let’s fix the problem, not fool ourselves in thinking that just by limiting the hours of sales we are accomplishing our objective. Many of the products being sold in school beverage vending machines today are beneficial. Juices, fitness and sports drinks all serve distinct purposes and should be allowed to be sold 24/7, right alongside healthier sodas.

I happen to love soda. I love the bubbles and I love the flavor. In recent years I have changed my own choices and shifted to the sodas that are less carbonated, have added fruit juice and use real sugar. I find them more satisfying, less bloating and I’m drinking healthier ingredients. Shouldn’t our children and teens be able to as well?

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent to phil.lempert@nbc.com or by using the mail box below. For more about the latest trends on the supermarket shelves, visit Phil’s Web site at .