“Copycat” Junk Food in Schools – Why Is Anyone Surprised?

I couldn’t make it to last week’s School Nutrition Association (SNA) annual national conference (ANC) in Boston, but I closely followed reports coming out of the convention via Twitter and other social media. And one common refrain from some food advocates and reporters in attendance was surprise and concern over the glut of junk food promoted by some food manufacturers at the ANC.

These highly processed foods — sometimes referred to as “copycat” junk food by school food reform advocates – bear all the same logos and brand names as their supermarket counterparts, but are nutritionally tweaked to comply with the USDA’s improved school meal standards and/or its new “Smart Snacks in School” rules.

Kiera Butler, writing for Mother Jones, walked the ANC convention floor and found out that “Yes, Cheetos, Funnel Cake, and Domino’s Are Approved School Lunch Items.”  Here’s a flier she took from a PepsiCo vendor:

Photo courtesy of Mother Jones
Photo credit: Kiera Butler for Mother Jones

And here’s a post from Time magazine (“There’s a Lot of Junk at the School Nutrition Conference“) which features photos tweeted from the ANC by Eat Drink Politics‘ Michele Simon, such as this one:

simon smart snacks ANC

But I have to confess that I’ve been surprised by …  well, the surprise … caused by “copycat” junk food.

To be sure, the new federal Smart Snacks and meal standards are a huge improvement in school food, and the passage of those rules is an achievement that shouldn’t be diminished (or rolled back – ahem, SNA).  But as Michael Pollan has observed of all processed food, “You can tweak it, reformulate it and reposition it ad infinitum,” and that includes rejiggering fat, sodium and whole grain levels to meet whatever standards the USDA adopts for school meals and snacks, no matter how stringent those standards may first appear.

And whatever R&D expenditures are required to reformulate their products, food manufactures are willing to make the outlay in exchange for something extremely valuable:  the opportunity to instill on a daily basis lifelong brand loyalties among a highly impressionable population, i.e., school children.

So it should come as no surprise that Big Food will always find a way to get into school cafeterias.  But it also shouldn’t surprise us that many school food service directors embrace these products.  The chronic underfunding of the National School Lunch Program creates ongoing challenges that highly processed, “better for you” school junk food can help meet.  Such food is cheap, easily stored, requires no labor, is guaranteed to meet USDA requirements and, most importantly, it’s instantly popular with kids, thanks to careful food engineering and billions of dollars in kid-directed advertising to create brand trust and familiarity.  If offered on the meal line, it can boost participation, and if offered on the for-cash a la carte (snack bar) line, it generally results in higher sales than healthier offerings.

But, of course, “copycat” school junk food causes two significant problems.  First, it impedes efforts to redirect kids toward the fresh, whole foods that would better serve their longterm health.  Second, children have no clue that the branded foods being served in the cafeteria are somehow “better” than the standard formulation of those foods, so they continue to receive the implicit message that items like Baked Flamin’ Hot Cheetos (whole-grain rich or otherwise) and Domino’s pizza (ditto) are acceptable, daily lunch fare.  And that’s a terribly destructive lesson that may never be unlearned.

So what, if anything, can be done to get “copycat” junk food out of the cafeteria?  In my opinion, not much at the present time, given the incentives that drive Big Food and some food service directors into each other’s arms, as well as the food industry’s influence over the SNA and Congress.

Nonetheless, I was intrigued by one clever idea to keep “copycat” junk food out of schools.  The Public Health Advocacy Institute (“PHAI”) has urged the USDA to put a provision in the agency’s proposed wellness policy rules that would prohibit companies from using brand names, logos, characters, etc. on school product packaging if those same marketing elements are also used on products which don’t meet the Smart Snacks nutritional requirements.

In other words, because unhealthy fried Cheetos are sold elswhere, none of the Cheetos design elements could be used on the packaging of the school-version of Cheetos.  Thus, Big Food’s ability to use school sales as a brand marketing tool would vanish overnight:

It remains to be seen whether PHAI’s proposal makes it into the final version of the wellness policy rules. Given the huge blow this would inflict on the food industry, I think it’s unlikely.  And even if it does show up in the final rule, it would still take serious commitment on the part of local school districts to adopt and enforce such language in actual practice.  More likely, any local community already so committed to student health wouldn’t allow a lot of  “copycat” junk food in the cafeteria in the first place.

But you have to give PHAI credit for trying.  Because as my school food reform colleague Dana Woldow once memorably wrote, cleaned-up junk food products “are ‘better for you’ only in the sense that it is ‘better for you’ to be hit in the head with a brick only twice, rather than three times.”  Ouch.

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  1. Lunch Lady says

    “The chronic underfunding of the National School Lunch Program …” This. A million times THIS.

    When I have only $1.36 to spend on food for school lunch ($0.23 for white skim milk, $0.27 for all-you-will-eat salad bar fresh veggies, $0.10 for 1/2 cup steamed veggie, 40.23 for 1/2 cup fresh fruit, $0.10 for 1/2 cup canned in juice fruit … leaving me $0.43 cents for an entrée that has 2oz protein and 2 servings whole grain rich grain), it leaves many of us no choice but to offer other alternatives to stay in the black.

    While I am proud to say my district will be still keeping with the time-space restriction of not allowing any other competitive food/beverage sales to occur outside of our food service sales, many districts are not. Under the new SMART SNACK guidelines, SCHOOL based operations (stores, vending, fundraisers, etc), not just food service operations, will be selling all of these crap to students before, during, and after the school day.

    I weep for the fact that many districts around me will now be stocking their school stores with sugarfree Red Bull, low carb Monster, Diet Mt Dew, plus all the snacks Kiera highlighted in her story. Food Service almost has to sell it, too, to compete for business with the school.

    All of our hard work in new regulations seemed to be tossed out the window with the implementation of SMART SNACKS.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Lunch Lady: Are you in TX by any chance? I’m right now in the middle of a post about how TX is going to let our schools wiggle out of the time & place rules and I’m so upset about it. If you’re not in TX, would you mind disclosing your state? You can email me directly if you don’t want to do it in a comment. (Bettina at the lunch tray dot com)

    • Maggie says

      First – I fully appreciate the positive possibilities – yet I noticed a few phrases in the article that bring up the question about reproducing the success elsewhere (something we’ve talked about before as well).

      She “worked with her produce distributor to create affordable salad bars” – some districts might not have that clout. Several grants are mentioned on the Cincinnati food service site. Another director commented about “partnerships with nutrition-education nonprofits”…again, good if you have those resources in your area.

      Again, I don’t want to imply that I am degrading what these directors have accomplished and it is inspiring to see what can be accomplished – (yet, aren’t the chicken nuggets mentioned at the end of the article simply one of the copy-cats this post is discussing?) – but, usually the devil is in the details – it seems a district needs someone in the department who has the time and knowledge to find funding and support outside the normal income channels.

      I was intrigued by the idea of giving teachers free meals if they ate with the children. I can’t decide how we’d come out on that. Would the teachers go for the free food or would even that not be enough to get them to eat in the cafeteria (which then brings up the topic of the cafeteria atmosphere – yet another piece of this puzzle.)

  2. Stephanie says

    Yes, I am always surprised (often of my own surprise!) when this happens. Good news for our school district is that principals can dictate the ala carte items in their cafeteria! I wonder if enough said NO, to better-for-you junk food in their ala carte lunch line selections, what would the outcome be??

  3. says

    I agree we should not give junk food companies “the opportunity to instill on a daily basis lifelong brand loyalties among a highly impressionable population, i.e., school children.” Love Dana Woldow’s quote!

  4. says

    “That’s a terribly destructive lesson that may never be unlearned.” Exactly! I am not surprised by this either (of course these companies want to make money) but I absolutely hate the idea of this reformulated junk food. Now the new snack standards end up being all about tweaked fat grams and calories instead of the true intention–which was to provide better quality foods to kids in schools. This isn’t better quality food. This is splitting hairs. Frustrating!

  5. brittany says

    I think the non-branded copycat junk food would be an EXCELLENT compromise and I agree that it is unlikely this will become a requirement as it would cut into the junk food industry’s bottom line and free marketing to children.

  6. says

    Thank you for this informative article! As a small company (whose founder is a former school teacher) that only sources from trusted suppliers and that has an incredible snack that meets the USDA Standards for Smarts Snack in School as well as being Non-GMO Project Verified, 100% Whole Grain with Organic Oats, Vegan, and Made in the USA Certified it is challenging to be up against these Big Brands! Thanks again!!!

  7. says

    This is a great article and I read all of your posts. I have the opportunity to guide my school lunch program in their development of a new snack menu. I would like to move toward minimally processed and from scratch foods. Do you have suggestions that would meet the criteria that I could suggest? We don’t sell peanut products, so no peanut butter and apple snack-type snacks are allowed. The district is nervous to try the change but willing as long as I don’t go crazy (and by crazy, they said no quinoa, tofu, or jicama).


    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Beth: San Francisco USD had a list of foods that they allowed in their vending machines which might be helpful. Let me see if I can track it down.


  1. […] Cara proposes that the USDA amend its current proposal to limit junk-food marketing in schools to also limit the sale of copycat snacks. She writes: In order to prevent co-marketing of junk foods in schools, the USDA can include in its rule for local school wellness policy implementation a definition of marketing that includes product packaging and an express exclusion of copycat snacks. The following two provisions would effectively prevent co-marketing of junk food in schools via copycat snacks: 210.30(b)(1) Food and Beverage Marketing and Advertising: Food and Beverage Marketing and Advertising means an oral, written, or graphic statement or representation, including a company logo or trademark, made for the purpose of promoting the use or sale of a product by the producer, manufacturer, distributer, seller, or any other entity with a commercial interest in the product. This covers such representations made on product packaging, school controlled-traditional and digital media, and on any property or facility owned or leased by the school district or school (such as school buildings, athletic fields, transportation vehicles, parking lots, or other facilities). Policies for Food and Beverage Marketing: Local Education Authorities shall include in their local wellness plans policies that only allow marketing and advertising as defined in Section 210.30(b)(1) of foods and beverages that (1) meet the requirements set forth in the Smart Snacks rule, and that (2) use company brands, product names, logos, spokes-characters or mascots that are only used on food and beverage products that meet Smart Snacks standards (or the more restrictive standards adopted by the LEA, if applicable). Bettina Siegel, the writer behind popular The Lunch Tray blog, created the following graphic to describe what Cara describes in her report: (c) Bettina Siegel, The Lunch Tray [source] […]

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