Schools have come down hard on soft drinks in recent years, banning the sugary beverages from vending machines and lunch rooms. Now, the city is taking its fight against childhood obesity to the corner stores where students hang out.
In an aggressive marketing campaign, Boston school and health officials are teaming up with convenience stores near city middle schools to steer students away from sodas and toward healthier drinks.
Starting today, the Boston Public Health Commission will post advertising flyers in eight city stores urging schoolchildren to forgo soft drinks in favor of 100 percent fruit juice, low-fat milk, and plain water. The stores have also agreed to display the healthier beverages prominently and sell smaller, 50-cent healthy drinks.
The pilot "Corner Store" initiative, which health officials described as a rare partnership between public schools and private businesses, will also track children's beverage choices over the next few months to determine if more students are developing healthier habits.
"If we're going to make a significant dent in the childhood obesity epidemic, we're going to have to make changes in the environment," said Vivien Morris, community initiatives director at Boston Medical Center's Nutrition and Fitness for Life program.
Boston public schools, at the urging of Mayor Thomas M. Menino, have taken aggressive action in recent years to combat the city's high proportion of overweight students, banning junk food and soft drinks in school vending machines and hiring chefs to improve the quality and nutritional content of school meals.
"We're working on many fronts to try and influence children's eating behaviors," said Anne McHugh, director of the Boston Public Health Commission's Boston Steps program, a chronic-disease prevention and control campaign. "Sugary drinks are just empty calories without any nutritional value, and it's an area where we think we can have influence."
Almost half of Boston public school students are classified as overweight or at risk of becoming overweight, according to recent health surveys, a figure consistent with other urban school systems'. Nationally, 17 percent of children ages 2 to 19 are overweight.
Researchers say high sugar and fat intake and low levels of physical activity are the leading contributors to childhood obesity, which is blamed for a rise in diabetes, heart disease, and other health problems. The prevalence is particularly high in low-income neighborhoods.
The eight stores in proximity to six schools are in Dorchester, Hyde Park, Mattapan, Roxbury, and East Boston. Menino plans to announce the campaign at a kickoff event this morning at Fuller's Market in Dorchester.
Health officials said the common sight of young students grabbing high-calorie snacks after the final bell prompted them to reach out to local store owners.
"We knew they were getting healthy food in school, but what about to and from school?" Morris said. "A fruit drink and bag of chips for 75 cents, that continues to be the norm."
Mir Karim, owner of Tedeschi Food Shop in Hyde Park, said local students flock to his store for breakfast and afternoon snacks, usually candy, fruit drinks, and chips. He said he is happy to offer a healthier alternative but said it may prove a tough sell.
"They like the junk food," he said. "It will take time, I think, but maybe it will work. The kids, sometimes they are hard to convince."
At Fuller's Market, students at nearby Woodrow Wilson Middle School are fond of the 35-cent Little Debbie snack cakes and 25-cent fruit drinks. If they have more change in their pocket, they go for the Big Burst, a 16-ounce drink, said Hipolito Gonzalez, who runs the small corner store.
"They like their sweets," he said. "I think it's going to be tough for them to give it up."
Yet Gonzalez said that at their parents' request, he already does not sell soft drinks and candy to some neighborhood children. Instead, he suggests Nutri-Grain Bars, which he says are healthier. Maybe they will take to milk and juice in the same way, he said.
The program was developed by Boston Medical Center nutritionists in collaboration with public health officials and the New England Dairy & Food Council, which donated and installed new milk coolers in the schools and stores. HP Hood also replaced the standard 8-ounce paper milk cartons sold in the six middle schools with 10-ounce plastic bottles.
The marketing campaign grew out of focus groups with middle-schoolers over the past year, which revealed that students were primarily concerned with price and taste. At students' suggestion, 1960s-era posters show healthy beverages inside an enlarged brain, and feature slogans such as "Water: It's a brilliant choice," "Juice makes the grade," and "Power your brain with milk."
Schools will hold kickoff assemblies for the campaign over the next two weeks, and students will be given "Drink Smart" cards to use in participating stores.