The tide is turning in the nationwide movement to end junk food commercialism in schools. That’s thanks in part to a campaign to address childhood obesity initiated by First Lady Michelle Obama. Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed a new rule which will limit unhealthy food marketing on school property during the school day, and the agency is seeking public comments on it.  The rule is part of the Local School Wellness Policy Implementation under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

On Friday, April 25, Public Citizen will submit detailed comments, and summary comments endorsed by thousands of supporters, urging the USDA to provide the strongest and broadest possible protections for students. We anticipate that our comments will be taken seriously since our School Commercialism: High Costs, Low Revenue report was cited directly in the proposed rule.

In 2009, junk food companies spent $149 million on marketing in our schools — with ads for sugary drinks like Coke and Pepsi accounting for 90 percent. And the marketing seems to be having some effect: In 2012, more than one- third of children and adolescents struggled with the health effects of being overweight or obese.

While the proposed rule is an important step forward, it has some potential loopholes. For example, the USDA should include a provision that urges schools to eliminate advertising of all brands that market unhealthy food, not just specific unhealthy products. Schools should also be provided the freedom to eliminate all food marketing, in order to streamline the process of monitoring brand and product compliance with the USDA’s Smart Snacks guidelines.

The USDA should also include a more expansive definition of food marketing to cover the range of tactics used by food and beverage companies.  Public Citizen and allies are encouraging the USDA to provide guidance to schools on the various types of marketing including, but not limited to posters, curricula, websites promoted for educational purposes or recommended by the school (ex. coolmathgames.com), vending machine exteriors, food or beverage cups or containers, equipment, uniforms, school supplies, in-school television (such as Channel One) and on computer screen savers and/or school-sponsored Internet sites. Additionally, branded fundraisers and corporate-sponsored programs (ex. McTeacher’s night), corporate incentive programs that provide children with free or discounted foods or beverages (ex. Pizza Hut Book It! Program), free samples and naming rights to school property.

Research suggests that commercialism in schools generally poses a threat to children’s psychological health, in addition to threats to physical health.  Children exposed to advertising suffer displacement of values and activities other than those consistent with materialism  and heightened insecurity about themselves and their place in the social world among other issues.  Commercial messaging in education compounds the overall effects of children’s exposure to ubiquitous commercialism while undermining students’ capacities to think creatively, critically and independently in school.

Public Citizen maintains that no commercial marketing or advertising should be present in the education context given its demonstrated harms to children’s physical and psychological health. But since the USDA can address only unhealthy food marketing in this proposed rule, Public Citizen will urge the agency to make its rule on food marketing as strong as possible.

We encourage citizens to endorse our summary comments to the USDA by Friday, April 25. Supporters should also sign our petition to keep commercialism out schools entirely.

Eva Seidelman is a researcher for Public Citizen’s Commercial Alert.

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