In February, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released proposed guidelines to strengthen nutrition and physical activity in schools. As part of the improvements, schools will be asked to establish limits on food and beverage marketing in their wellness policies.
Just how much food and beverage advertising to children see in schools? The answer: A lot. Food companies get pretty creative when it comes to targeting youth, and the USDA’s new standards could have the opportunity to cover all of the ways kids see marketing during the school day, including:
- Curricula, textbooks, and educational materials
- Vending machines and cooler exteriors
- Coupon reward programs
- Signs and posters
- Sponsorship of programs, events, or teams
- Food and beverage cups or containers
- Food display racks
- Sports equipment
- School supplies
- School publications
- School TV and radio stations
- School websites
Sound like a ton of advertising? It is. And it happens more often than you think.
Most health and nutrition advocates are applauding the USDA for finally addressing this issue. Still, some feel that this effort may not be good enough. In fact, Michele Simon, consultant for Corporate Accountability International, and Josh Golin, associate director of Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, think these guidelines could set a dangerous precedent:
To our knowledge this is the first time a federal agency has essentially given the green light to any form of marketing in schools, setting a dangerous precedent that goes far beyond food marketing. The danger is that in attempting to set a ceiling that prohibits advertising for unhealthy foods, the USDA will inadvertently set a floor which opens the floodgates for many other types of marketing in schools.
Simon and Golin bring up a good point. Intentional or not, by telling companies they can only market “healthy” products in schools, the USDA establishes the school environment as an appropriate place to target children. And, how will “healthy” vs. “unhealthy” be determined? We know that food companies themselves certainly aren’t capable of making that distinction:
And what about brands like Lunchables, which have a few varieties that meet nutrition standards, while most do not? Should a pizza company be allowed to advertise in schools, simply because they have one pizza out of 1,000 possible topping, crust, and cheese combinations that meet school lunch standards? Whether intended or not, any product being advertised on school grounds is subsequently carrying the school’s stamp of approval for the entire brand.
Schools should be one of the most trusted and safest environments for kids. Instead, they’ve become another means for companies to entice our most vulnerable and impressionable population, hooking them on products that aren’t good for them.
As Simon and Golin point out:
Marketing also undermines education’s vital mission to promote critical thinking skills. Advertising promotes decision-making based on emotional attachments to brands and exploits children’s developmental vulnerabilities, such as susceptibility to peer pressure.
What do you think? Are these guidelines a step in the right direction? Should food marketing of any kind be allowed in schools?
The USDA is accepting comments on the guidelines until tomorrow, April 28th, 2014. Take a few moments, and let them know what you think, here.