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Perspective: Keeping kids healthy means keeping schools free of unhealthy food ads

Perspective: Keeping kids healthy means keeping schools free of unhealthy food ads

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The following post is the latest in an occasional series from Oakland-based ChangeLab Solutions in collaboration with Reporting On Health.

Last spring, the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) made bold changes to its school wellness policy, a document that outlines the district’s plan to help kids eat well and be physically active. Among other revisions, the district reinforced and promoted a forward-thinking marketing provision that prohibits ads on school property for foods not served on campus and encourages food carts and trucks that operate near schools to sell healthier fare.

“Our goal with the updated policy is to address all the things in the school environment that affect the health of students and staff,” said Mark Elkin, coordinator for the district’s Nutrition Education Project. “Addressing marketing is one piece of that effort.”

How schools are combatting unhealthy marketing

SFUSD first adopted its wellness policy in 2003, a year before the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) required districts participating in the National School Lunch Program to implement local wellness policies. Twelve years later, the district is still in the vanguard of the movement to improve student health.

Under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) of 2010, the USDA proposed a rule that would impose new requirements for school wellness policies. Though the USDA hasn’t yet finalized the rule, it is expected to do so this year, and school districts like SFUSD and Milwaukee Public Schools have used pieces of the proposed regulation to strengthen existing policies. One part of the proposed rule would ensure the products and brands marketed in schools comply with the HHFKA’s nutrition standards.

These nutrition standards have been controversial – critics argue increased food waste and concerns that kids are eating less prove that the measures are counterproductive. Indeed, there is evidence some kids don’t like the new offerings. But there is also research to suggest kids are eating more fruits and wasting less food. And the public overwhelmingly supports the standards, perhaps recognizing that it takes more than three years of school lunches to transform the eating habits of an entire generation.

Unhealthy marketing affects student health

There is a growing understanding that improving student health is not just about serving healthier foods – it’s also about promoting healthier lifestyles. Reducing unhealthy marketing to children is a key part of that task, one that sometimes goes overlooked.

“Students can walk off campus and buy the foods and drinks they see advertised,” said Elkin of SFUSD. “The marketing component of the wellness policy reinforces our nutrition education program and helps us promote health comprehensively.”

Marketing for unhealthy items – sugary drinks, chips, candy, fast food – is pervasive, and often targets children. Companies’ marketing tactics profoundly affect children’s preferences, purchase requests, and eating behaviors, which shape a lifetime of habits. Research has shown children under 8 are especially vulnerable to marketing, and the Federal Trade Commission has said it is deceptive to advertise to children under 6. In one study, children ages 4 to 12 consumed more of the brands of unhealthy foods they saw advertised, such as sugary cereals and fast foods.

In the school context, soda brands on vending machines, fast food logos on stadium scoreboards, and even junk food-sponsored educational materials can undermine a school’s efforts to help kids eat better. Even as cafeterias serve more vegetables, milk, and whole grains, the promotion of familiar unhealthy foods and drinks – both on and near school property – may discourage kids from trying unfamiliar healthy foods at school or elsewhere.

Marketing restrictions can help kids be healthy

When the USDA finalizes its rule, school districts across the country will have to comply with the new marketing limits. It’s important to consider the role such marketing restrictions play in helping kids consume healthy foods and beverages:

1. Addressing marketing can help support healthier school nutrition standards. Bombarding kids with contradictory messages about what to eat isn’t going to help them eat better. Do students see ads for foods they’re not served in school? How does that marketing affect what they eat or don’t eat, both inside and outside of school?

2. Restricting unhealthy marketing can help reduce health disparities among students. One recent report shows marketing for unhealthy foods disproportionately targets Latino and African-American youth, who are also hardest hit by the obesity and diabetes crises. How is advertising for these items in schools contributing to those inequities?

3. Marketing off campus affects student health, too. Most school districts can’t do anything about local billboards or ads on city buses, but those also affect kids’ choices. SFUSD encourages nearby vendors to sell healthier items: At one elementary school in the district, an after-school program coordinator successfully worked with a food cart owner to sell more fruits. And in the broader community, where schools lack authority, local government can step in to address marketing to kids. Are certain items marketed to students outside of school? What can kids buy near school, and how might those offerings affect their choices?

Improving student health is not simple or instantaneous, and involves more than serving kids apples and whole-wheat pasta once a day, five days a week (challenging as that can be). It requires considering all the environmental factors that make health hard to achieve.

“People may always complain about school lunches,” said Elkin. “So it has to be about more than lunch. We are providing access to fresh, healthy food. But we’re also encouraging kids to eat those foods, and lead healthier lives.”

[Photo by USDA via Flickr.]

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