Researchers from Yale University have called on parents to take action on junk food marketing in schools. In an editorial published in JAMA Pediatrics they detailed how marketers have taken advantage of tight school budgets to turn places of learning into ads for soda, fast food, cookies and candy.
Almost two-thirds of elementary schools provide food coupons as student incentives (eg, Pizza Hut’s Book It program and Sonic Limeades for Learning). In cafeterias, 10% of elementary schools and 30% of high schools serve branded fast food weekly; 19% of high schools serve it everyday… Branded fundraising sponsored by food companies is common, including direct sales of products (eg, David’s Cookies and Hershey’s candy) and reward programs for families’ purchases (eg, General Mills’ Box Tops for Education and My Coke Rewards for schools). Ronald McDonald visits elementary schools to teach children about healthy eating, and fast food restaurants donate a percent of the night’s proceeds in return for in-school promotions. Soda and sports drink logos are commonly featured on donated school equipment such as scoreboards and beverage coolers. Food marketing also enters the classroom through display advertising on Internet search engines and educational websites such as coolmath-games.com and Channel One News.
They conclude by pointing out why these things don’t belong there.
School property should be a place where messages to young people strengthen their bodies as well as their minds.
I shared why it’s so detrimental and some examples from my own children’s schools in this news story about the Yale research.
If we’re teaching kids about health and nutrition, you want the messages you’re getting from their school to support that…If we’re allowing our schools to market junk food, that’s going to increase those health costs down the road. It’s about making those connections between school leaders. It seems like free money, but there is a major cost to it down the road in regards to health care.
Elementary students attending lower and middle SES schools had significantly higher exposure to food coupons than elementary students in higher SES schools…The high prevalence of school-based commercialism confirms an additional need for clear and enforceable standards on the nutrition content of all foods and beverages marketed to students in all schools.
Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, calls for parents to demand change.
While companies are spending millions of dollars on marketing in schools, parents can make a big impact simply by speaking up. Harris encourages parents to find out whether marketing is taking place at their child’s school and speak with the school wellness committee, PTA and school administrators if they have concerns.
“Parents have more say in this marketing than what’s advertised on TV. They really can put their foot down,” she says. “Parents are important consumers for these companies and if they decided that food marketing in schools was unacceptable, the companies would have to stop and that’s why parents should speak up and demand change.”
The National Parent Teacher Association says they speak for “every child with one voice” and would seem to be a logical choice to champion this issue. Unfortunately the PTA is often the “in” for companies looking to market to students. Coca-Cola has been a sponsor of the National PTA in the past and one of their lobbyists even served on the PTA’s board of directors which sparked sharp criticism. Now the connections are not as blatant but they still exist.
Take for example this PTA Community Outreach Grant. When I read that the purpose was to improve awareness of “energy balance” concepts, I dug deeper into who was sponsoring it. Energy balance is usually food industry speak for blaming the victims who are hooked on the junk food these companies engineered to be addictive. Sure enough, it just took a few clicks on Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation to About Us to Corporate Members to bring up Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, General Mills, Hershey’s, Mars, Nestlé, and many other junk food giants. Concerning efforts to curb even voluntary guidelines for marketing to children, Marion Nestle writes:
As for the food industry’s role in all this: when food companies say they are doing everything they can to reduce marketing junk foods to kids, you now know what they really mean.
NPR shared this video by addiction researcher Dr. Nicole Avena on how sugar affects the brain. I hope when people watch it, they realize it is affecting children’s brains the same way and make the connection to schools being used to market junk food to students.
It’s time to drain the food swamp and schools are a good place to start. Do organizations like the PTA who work with the junk food industry really expect the alligators to help drain it?