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Our kids are targets for marketing of junk food in school

Harold Mandel's picture
A young girl enjoying a school meal

Our kids are considered valuable marketing targets by food companies which often push nutritionally poor products. Families who are aware of the vital importance of good nutrition for their kids would like to be the primary influence on their eating habits. However, with the aggressive marketing campaigns by food companies aimed at kids in our schools it appears our families have competition for how they will ultimately influence what our kids wants to eat.

Schools represent very desirable marketing environments for food and beverage companies, reported the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) on Jan. 13, 2014. Unfortunately, it has been found that most of the marketed food and beverage items are poor in nutrition. Researchers at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan decided to examine the national trends in what students are exposed to commercially by food and beverage companies.

The researchers studied this in students from 2007 through 2012 in U.S. public elementary, middle, and high schools with use of a survey of school administrators. The researchers found that although some commercialism measures, particularly those related to beverage vending, have shown significant decreases over the years, most students at every academic level continued to go to schools with one or more types of school-based commercialism in 2012.

It was observed that exposure to school-based commercialism increased markedly with each grade level. For 63 percent of elementary school kids the most frequent kind of commercialism was food coupons which were used as incentives. In secondary schools exclusive beverage contracts were the most prevalent type of commercialism they were exposed to. These beverage contracts were found in schools attended by 49.5 percent of middle school students and 69.8 percent of high school students. The exposure to elementary school coupons and the middle and high school exclusive beverage contracts were found to be significantly more likely for students who were attending schools with mid or low, versus vs high, student body socioeconomic status.

It has been concluded by the researchers that the majority of U.S. elementary, middle, and high school students go to schools where they are exposed to commercial efforts which are aimed at obtaining food or beverage sales. The companies doing this marketing are also interested in developing brand recognition and loyalty for the future sales of their products. There have been some decreases in many of these measures over time.

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However, school-based food and beverage commercialism remains significant enough to call for clear and enforceable standards on the nutritional content of all foods and beverages which are marketed to our kids in school settings. In view of the catastrophically high rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer, all of which are influenced by diet, this issue becomes even more critical than ever.

Fast food advertising has clearly penetrated our schools, reports the American Heart Association This study has shown that most students go to schools where they are exposed to fast food and beverages through their meals, advertising campaigns and promotions. Branded fast food is served weekly in ten percent of elementary school and 30 percent of high school cafeterias.These foods are served daily in 19 percent of high schools.

Companies are marketing very heavily in schools even while food is being served or offered for sale. In fact food and beverage companies spent $149 million on marketing in schools in 2009 according to the Federal Trade Commission. Dr. Rachel Johnson, who is a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont and a volunteer for the American Heart Association’s Voices for Healthy Kids movement, has said, “It doesn’t seem fair that while parents are trying to teach their kids how to eat healthy, they see ads on TV, billboards, even at school that tell them junk foods are delicious.”

Dr. Johnson has gone on to point out that two-thirds of elementary schools which were sampled in this study offered fast food coupons to their students. This has been sending the wrong message to our kids and our parents by our schools. Because our schools are a trusted source of learning the psychological impact of this marketing is often very powerful.

The government has given some attention to the need for good nutrition for students. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 allows the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to make recommendations and changes to improve the USDA’s core child nutrition programs. These have included the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program. This has resulted in a major overhaul to what snack foods and beverages are available for students in schools with an interest in ensuring junk foods are not provided to students as part of the school meal program. However, there are not at this time similar restrictions on how fast food giants advertise their products in schools.

I have noticed how impressionable children are to food and beverage advertising campaigns. It appears the marketers for junk food use their knowledge of the psychology of kids to use the school environment to work on creating an addiction to their unhealthy food which can last a lifetime. The problem becomes so serious that young kids often think of their own parents as being out of touch with things when they try to move against the the effects of marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to their kids.

It becomes even more difficult to convince our kids to eat well because many TV food and beverage adds directed at kids are also often unhealthy, as I have reported upon in a separate article for EmaxHealth. I therefore suggest that Family Physicians become more aggressive about offering counseling dealing with nutritional issues, with children and their parents, in order to help gain more overall respect for the perspective of good nutrition versus trendy marketing campaigns by companies which do not care about the health of our children.