Junk Food Marketing Prevalent in Montgomery County Schools

Study Shows Food Companies Target Captive School Audience


WASHINGTON—Junk-food and soda makers directly market to young children right in their schools, according to a new survey of public schools in Montgomery County, Maryland. Conducted at the request of Montgomery County Council Member George Leventhal, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) found that the most prevalent forms of marketing in schools are signs on the exteriors of vending machines, food sales in vending machines, posters, and school fundraisers.

Eighty-three percent of schools have posters or signs with food or beverage marketing messages (such as posters for Rich’s ice cream or Little Debbie snack cakes), and less than half (42 percent) of those signs market healthier categories such as dairy.

Vending machines are a major source of marketing through product sales and advertising on the machine’s exterior. The county has strong nutrition standards for food sold in schools. While schools are working to reduce junk-food sales, many vending machines are still stocked with soda, juice drinks, iced tea, candy, cookies and chips.

Eighty-two percent of the vending machines have some marketing messages on their exteriors—most commonly, the images are of branded sodas, snacks, juice or water. All high schools and middle schools surveyed have vending machines, with an average of 21 vending machines in each high school.

All of the high schools, half of the middle schools, and 30 percent of the elementary schools hold fundraisers with candy, baked goods, soda or fast food and other restaurant food.

“Food marketing influences children’s food choices, and ultimately their health,” said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan, co-author of the study. “Foods and beverages marketed in schools should meet the county’s own nutrition standards. Our public schools should be starting kids out on a lifetime of healthy eating habits. Permitting junk-food marketing in schools is like pouring gasoline on the fire of the obesity epidemic, when what we need is a bucket of water.”

One way chain and other restaurants market their products to school children is through fundraising nights, which drum up business on slow nights and associate their brands with the school. Four out of five Montgomery County Public Schools participate in such fundraising nights, often at restaurants such as McDonald’s, Chuck E. Cheese, or Ledo’s Pizza.

Food marketing in the form of product sales, advertising on scoreboards, school publications, and corporate-sponsored educational materials are common. Several elementary schools participate in Pizza Hut’s Book It program, which provides certificates for free Personal Pan Pizzas as rewards for reaching reading goals. (Each Personal Pan Pizza has 620 calories, half a day’s saturated fat and more than half a day’s sodium.)

“Junk food marketing confuses the line between education and promotion,” said CSPI child health project manager and study co-author Ameena Batada. “The modest rewards to schools are not worth the long-term costs to children’s health and well-being.”

“Thirty percent of Maryland children ages 10 to 17 are overweight or obese,” Councilmember Leventhal said. “Parents have a big enough challenge guiding their kids’ food choices and promoting healthy choices. School policies should support parents, and not let junk-food marketers go around parents’ backs directly to young children.”

Wootan and Batada will present the findings of the survey at a hearing convened today by the County Council’s Health and Human Services Committee. CSPI recommends that the County’s Board of Education strengthen its policy of limiting marketing of low-nutrition foods in schools. CSPI also recommends that schools seek out healthy fundraising techniques as opposed to relying on candy sales or fast-food restaurant nights. CSPI published a report last year giving examples of successful fundraisers that don’t include junk food, such as exercise-a-thons, cell phone recycling programs, book fairs, and gift cards.

Elsewhere around the country, Maine passed a law limiting in-school food marketing to only food allowed under the state nutrition standards for food sales. California will be considering a bill on food marketing in schools.

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Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at]cspinet.org) or Ariana Stone (astone[at]cspinet.org).