White House and USDA propose advertising limits in schools

Michelle Obama Let's Move campaign
CC BY 2.0 USDA

“The idea here is simple – classrooms should be healthy places where kids aren’t bombarded with ads for junk food. Because when parents are working hard to teach their kids healthy habits at home, their work shouldn’t be undone by unhealthy messages at school.”

This is a statement from First Lady Michelle Obama, who is on a mission to eliminate unhealthy food marketing from schools. At the end of February, she joined with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Secretary Tom Vilsack to announce proposed guidelines for new new school wellness policies that are set to go into effect next school year (2014-15). These include the following:

• Guidelines set by the USDA outlining goals for nutrition education and physical activity
• Informing parents about policy content and implementation
• Periodic assessments of nutrition programs and launch of new ‘School Nutrition Environment and Wellness Resources’ website
• Snacks sold in schools that meet the newly released ‘Smart Snacks in Schools’ standards
• Expansion of school breakfast and lunch programs to more than 22,000 schools and 9 million children, primarily from low-income households
• Elimination of marketing any unhealthy products in schools

The new rules would eventually phase out all advertising of unhealthy foods in 100,000 schools across the United States. Currently 90 percent of in-school advertising relates to sugary beverages and energy drinks. So, according to the school wellness policy, a scoreboard at a high school sporting event could no longer advertise Coca-Cola, but Dasani water or Diet Coke, both of which belong to the Coca-Cola parent company, would be appropriate.

Vending machines will have to comply with calorie, fat, sugar, and sodium limits, but concession stands at extracurricular sports games would be exempt. Fundraisers held at a fast-food outlet could not be advertised around the school, but parents would be contacted directly about the event. The purpose is to redirect advertising to parents while bypassing the kids.

Ever since she lobbied Congress in 2010 to pass the school nutrition bill, Mrs. Obama has apparently been forging relationships within the food and beverages industries, trying to encourage the production and sale of healthier products. The Guardian quotes American Beverage Association president and CEO Susan Neely as saying that aligning signage with the healthier drinks that will be offered in schools is the “logical next step.”

As great as it sounds, I am highly skeptical that these ultra-powerful industries have children’s best interests at heart, or else they wouldn’t be making the products they do. Diet Coke masquerading as a healthy beverage choice is absurd. Why not just offer the healthiest drink of all – water?

It’s one thing to tell kids to refuse unhealthy food, but that doesn’t solve the whole problem. Kids need to learn what to eat instead, and often that includes cooking, something that many parents don't bother doing anymore, let alone teach to their kids. Without that knowledge, many families will fall back on convenient prepackaged options. Unless Mrs. Obama plans to supplement her anti-advertising campaign with mandatory cooking and grocery shopping classes for students and their parents, I fear for its long-term success.

Tags: Diet | Education | Health | Kids | United States

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