Food Industry Seeks to Maintain Junk-Food Marketing in Schools

Bill Introduced Today Seeks Thorough Study of School-Based Marketing


WASHINGTON—Despite rising public concern over childhood obesity, food companies, through an industry-funded self-regulatory group, have proposed a set of "principles" by which the companies can use a variety of approaches to market junk food to children in schools. The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest today urged the industry group to go back to the chalk board and consider whether Ronald McDonald truly belongs in the classroom. Also today, a bill introduced in Congress would require the Department of Education to conduct a thorough assessment of school-based food marketing.

The industry document at issue is a "Fact Sheet on the Elementary School Advertising Principles" released by the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which is funded by industry and administered by the Council of Better Business Bureaus.

Members of the initiative include Burger King, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Hershey Company, McDonald's, Campbell Soup Company, and other major food companies. The fact sheet begins with an introduction stating that the member "companies agree that they will not advertise any food or beverage in elementary schools," and lists coupons, food samples, posters, and book covers among several other forms of prohibited advertising. That sounds promising, but the document then spends much of the following 10 pages describing what food marketing it does not include, such as marketing on vending machine exteriors, label-collection programs, branded display racks, tray liners that promote food sold in schools, and menu boards, many of the techniques that are used most widely in schools.

The self-regulatory scheme also allows companies to sponsor curricula, other educational materials, and public service announcements. "Spokescharacters" like Ronald McDonald or Tony the Tiger are allowed, as is the sale—by students—of low-nutrition foods in fundraisers. It even omits the most common form of in-school marketing: the sale of the food itself. Although some of the CFBAI-participating companies have pledged to address school food sales through an agreement with the Clinton Foundation and American Heart Association, the majority of companies have not.

In a letter to Elaine Kolish, the initiative’s director, CSPI also expressed concern that the guidelines only cover elementary schools (K-6). At the very least, the guidelines should cover middle schools, where the average 6th grader is 11 years old. Nor do the guidelines apply during after-school activities.

"These principles are a sham, written more to protect the commercial needs of food marketers than the health of children," said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. "It's bad enough that junk food is still available for kids to buy in schools. But who wants their son or daughter to be enlisted in an unpaid, drone army actually selling junk food?"

Pizza Hut's Book It! Program is an example of an in-school marketing program that is allowed under the principles outlined in the industry fact sheet, since the Pizza Hut logo is small compared to other text on the materials. Logo aside, it is the prospect of free Pizza Hut pizza that really captures children's attention. (Yum! Brands [Pizza Hut’s parent company], Chuck E. Cheese's, Topps Candy, and a number of other major marketers to children have not joined the self-regulatory program.)

"Schools should teach the joys of reading," said Wootan. "Programs like Pizza Hut's turn reading into a commercial proposition that, unfortunately, ends up promoting obesity and disease in children." Experts warn against using food as a reward, which can instill in children lifetime habits of rewarding or comforting themselves with unhealthy food behaviors.

CSPI says that without a substantial expansion of the marketing principles the food industry's self-regulatory system won’t adequately protect kids’ health.

"With a new Administration, a re-animated Federal Trade Commission, and more city and state governments interested in aggressively tackling the problem of childhood obesity, we’re likely to see reforms that far surpass what the industry is willing to do voluntarily," Wootan said.

The legislation introduced today, sponsored by Representatives Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) and Todd Platt (R-PA), would require the U.S. Department of Education, along with the Division of Adolescent and School Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to assess the nutritional quality of foods available in schools and the forms of food marketing in schools. The legislation is supported by a broad coalition of national and state health groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and the Trust for America’s Health. 

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