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Food Companies Marketing to Kids in Most Schools


There’s challenging news on the school food front.

While the nutritional quality of the food served in schools is improving, food and beverage companies are still able to market unhealthy items such as fast food, soft drinks and candy in most schools, according to new research released Monday.

In fact, food and beverage companies spent a whopping $149 million on marketing in schools in 2009, according to researchers at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, whose study was published in JAMA Pediatrics.

“A lot of times parents don’t realize that marketing in schools is a deliberate strategy,” says Leader Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. “There’s no other way they can reach 100 percent of students every day. Their goal is to create lifelong customers and the earlier they can reach a child, the more likely they will be a consumer for life.”

Marketing isn’t the only problem. While schools across the country improved the food they serve following the implementation of new nutritional guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, fast food remains a presence on some campuses. Ten percent of elementary school and 30 percent of high school cafeterias serve branded fast food weekly, while 19 percent of high schools served these foods daily.

Harris, who co-authored an editorial on the study's findings with Leader Tracy Fox, says even she was surprised by just how much marketing is still going on in elementary schools and middle schools. For example, companies such as Pizza Hut and Sonic issue students incentive coupons offering free fast food items for completing tasks such as reading.

Two-thirds of elementary schools offer kids these coupons, Harris noted.

“The USDA standards are going into effect and those strong nutrition standards won’t allow these foods to be sold in schools,” Harris says. “The next logical step is that if you can’t sell these products in schools, you shouldn’t market them in schools. There’s opportunity for schools to add restrictions for marketing in their school wellness policies.”

Marketing on campus also includes vending machine contracts, and the research shows that middle and high schools with higher percentages of low-income students had more exclusive vending beverage contracts than other schools. But vending contracts isn’t the boondoggle many people think it is, Harris notes — it leads to just $2 to $4 per student in revenue.

“Schools are desperate for the funding, but we need to think about the long term effects of marketing that encourages kids to eat foods that they shouldn’t consume or just consume in moderation,” Harris says. “The most commonly advertised products in schools are fast food, soft drinks and candy.”

There is some good news, Harris notes. 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.”