A step in the right direction? USDA takes on Food Marketing in Schools

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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:

  • Scoreboards
  • Curricula, textbooks, and educational materials
  • Vending machines and cooler exteriors
  • Fundraisers
  • 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
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Scoreboards

mandm counting graph

Curricula, textbooks, and other educational materials

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Vending machine and cooler exteriors

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Fundraisers

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Coupon reward programs

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.

 

 

 

 

Oh, SNAP! AMA says food stamps should not buy sugary drinks

Last week, the American Medical Association came out against the eligibility for sugary drinks to be purchased under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps.  Their new policy recommends that the federal government add sugary drinks to the list of current ineligible products such as tobacco, alcoholic beverages and prepared hot foods due to the known association between sugar-sweetened beverages and obesity.  AMA policy does not dictate any actual regulations, but their policies do represent the opinion of the largest group of physicians in the United States.

The controversy surrounding the inclusion of sugar-sweetened beverages, like soda, in SNAP benefits is not new.  In 2008, Congress debated restricting the purchase of sugared drinks with food stamps as part of the 2008 farm bill, ultimately deciding to reject the concept.  Then in 2010, Mayor Michael Bloomberg fought (and subsequently lost) to bar New York City’s 1.7 million recipients of food stamps from using them to purchase soda or other sugared drinks.

Those in opposition of such a restriction have several arguments:

1)      If sugary drinks become ineligible, what’s next? Cookies? Candy? Who determine what is healthful vs. not healthful?

While some food products may have a gray area in terms of health, the link between sugary drinks and poor health outcomes is clear.

2)      Any limitations on SNAP benefits are a direct result of the government trying to tell people what to eat and drink

A government nutrition program should provide foods that are actually nourishing, not empty calories that have been proven to be detrimental to health.  Removing products that are not food (similar to tobacco and alcohol) from eligibility does not stop beneficiaries from continuing to purchase the products, just not with taxpayer dollars.

3)      Removing sugary drinks from eligibility creates a stigma for SNAP beneficiaries

School breakfast and lunch programs, which are also administered by USDA, comply with nutrition standards that exclude sugary drinks, as they should. So does the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which is limited to foods that deliver health benefits to pregnant and breastfeeding women and young children.  The only group that would really be put to shame with this type of regulation is the soft drink industry which reportedly receives $4 billion in taxpayer money each year from food stamps spent on soda.

4)      We should instead focus on incentives to encourage healthier food purchases

A Yale study from 2012 concluded that sugar-sweetened beverages account for the majority (58 percent) of beverages purchased under SNAP.  Making these products ineligible is the perfect incentive for families to spend more dollars on foods and beverages that provide real nourishment.  It also sends a clear message that sugary drinks are not healthful for regular consumption.

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We should not just be helping low-income people from going hungry but we should be making real efforts to keep them healthier.   SNAP has already made strides in increasing access to healthier foods through nutrition education programs and the inclusion of farmers markets as an outlet for using benefits.   Removing sugar-sweetened beverages from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is just one more step in encouraging healthier beverage choices.

The government’s ‘cheesy’ advice

Last week, I was given the opportunity to attend a presentation at Yale University by New York Times investigative reporter and best-selling author, Michael Moss.  If you haven’t read his book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, I highly recommend it. Or, if you are short on time, check out Moss’s New York Times article, The Extraordinary Science of Junk Food.  Both take a deep look at the history of the processed food industry, and how their use of salt, sugar, and fat has contributed to the obesity epidemic.

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While I consider myself to be relatively knowledgeable about the ties between the government and Big Food, Moss introduced a video during his presentation that had even my jaw hitting the floor. See for yourself:

This video is just one example of our flawed food system.  How can a single agency, like the USDA, be responsible for both the promotion of commodity foods and the delivery of dietary guidance, when these two responsibilities are so conflicting?  You can’t really expect the USDA to tell Americans to reduce their consumption of a basic commodity, like cheese, when it is also their job to make sure we are eating as much as possible. Instead, as Michael Moss notes, they hand out convoluted advice like this, ‘When eaten in moderation and with attention to portion size, cheese can fit into a low-fat, healthy diet’. Adding cheese to virtually every type of processed food the industry can think of, is definitely not a good exercise in moderation.

I started learning about these agency conflicts of interest while I was in grad school, and have since become a huge advocate for moving the responsibility of providing nutrition and dietary advice from the USDA to an unbiased agency such as the Institute of Medicine.  I think the public would be shocked to discover the changes that would be made to MyPlate guidelines, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and even our food assistance programs like SNAP and the National School Lunch Program if an outside agency that wasn’t polluted by corporate interests were to take on the roll. 24sugar1-articleLarge-v3