Why Proposal to Limit School Marketing Does Not Worry Food And Beverage Companies

Industry Groups Applaud Move, Saying It Furthers Ongoing Initiatives

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First Lady Michelle Obama has announced a new government proposal by the White House and the U.S. Department of Agriculture that would ban the marketing of sodas and unhealthy snacks in public schools during the school day. But while it would appear to put more pressure on food and beverage companies, associations representing them said they welcome the proposal, noting the industry has already made significant moves to pare back marketing in schools.

Credit: Bloomberg News

The new rules would eliminate the advertising of sugary drinks and junk foods on vending machines and around campuses. And existing in-school promotions would have guidelines to follow, from refillable water bottles to banners to sponsored scoreboards on school athletic fields.

The move, part of the First Lady's Let's Move initiative designed to fight childhood obesity, would essentially limit certain products on schools campuses during the school day. Coca-Cola Co., for example couldn't advertise Coke, but it could advertise its Dasani bottled water brand or Diet Coke. The same would also go for the fronts of vending machines, posters, cups and menu boards advertising foods that don't meet nutritional criteria.

The Federal Trade Commission said that more than 90% of that advertising in schools is for soda, sports drinks and other beverages. It also said that food companies spent $150 million marketing to children in schools in 2009, the most recent figures it released. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, 70% of elementary and middle school students and 90% of high school students went to schools that allowed food marketing in 2012, most of it for unhealthy food.

According to the proposal, "research has found that the financial impact on schools of prohibiting food marketing in schools would not likely be significant." But it's scope didn't clearly define marketing. The USDA said it would only apply to marketing during school hours, and doesn't affect restaurant logos, which means fast-food logos could be exempt.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids act of 2010 set new criteria for breakfast, lunch and even snacks in vending machines, fundraisers and school stores. Ads that don't meet guidelines for the USDA's Smart Snacks in Schools program would be banned.

Some self-regulation programs for the food and beverage industry created guidelines for kids up to 12 years-old, or in some cases, 6th grade. The new proposal, though would go beyond elementary schools as far as 12th grade. It does make exemptions if the food meets nutritional criteria.

The beverage industry adopted some limits on what it would market to kids under 12 in 2006, and removed sugary beverages from school vending machines and lunch rooms.That program was done with Bill Clinton's foundation.

"Mrs. Obama's efforts to continue to strengthen school wellness make sense for the well-being of our schoolchildren," said American Beverage Association presiden-CEO Susan Neely. "Our industry helped lead the way with our voluntary national School Beverage Guidelines, which removed full-calorie soft drinks, cut beverage calories in schools nationwide by 90%, and set the stage for the USDA's regulations that take effect in schools this July. Now, we look forward to working with the USDA on their proposed rule to align food and beverage signage in schools with the new regulations as the logical next step."

The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents companies like General Mills, Kraft Foods Group and Campbell Soup Co., said in a statement: "America's food and beverage companies enthusiastically support the First Lady's goal of solving childhood obesity within a generation, and are committed to providing consumers with the products, tools and information they need to build a healthy diet. ...Food and beverage companies also have implemented robust voluntary changes to our advertising practices that have dramatically changed the marketing landscape and the messages we send to children about food and nutrition."

Many of the biggest marketers in the industry, such as McDonald's, Burger King, Coca-Cola, ConAgra, PepsiCo, Campbell Soup Co., General Mills and Kraft Foods Group, joined the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a self-regulating group launched in 2006 to limit marketing to kids. As part of the program, the CFBAI set standards for advertising to kids in kindergarten through 6th grade that involved not advertising foods or drinks during the school day.

The CFBAI's definition of advertising generally sticks to traditional advertising methods such as coupons, posters and other forms of measured media. CFBAI also included advertisements on the sides of buses on its off-limits list. Not included in the CFBAI's definition is food on display for purchase, vending machines fundraising activities, charitable donations or items provided to school administrators.

Elaine Kolish, VP and director of the CFBAI, said that CFBAI's participants "have already not been advertising food to kids in elementary schools, even if the foods meet meaningful nutrition standards, because we recognize that schools are a special environment."

One gray area for the proposal appears to be events held off-campus or fundraising events outside what's considered the school day. Many fast-food chains participate in local fundraising events, which critics consider a form of marketin, such as Pizza Hut's "Book It," which gives free pizza to elementary students who meet reading goals. Local McDonald's have also been known to hold fundraisers for literacy or other causes.

The food and beverage industries have long been under attack for marketing to kids by consumer advocacy groups. Some are considering the proposal a further step in the right direction. "Given the high rates of childhood obesity and children's poor diets, it doesn't make sense to advertise and market unhealthy food to children at all, much less in schools," said Center for Science in the Public Interest nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan.

The USDA is seeking comment on the proposal for a number of things, including "The use of in-kind rewards, such as coupons from restaurants for children reading a certain number of books, or other donations for student rewards, and the wellness impacts of these in-kind rewards."