Michelle Obama’s School Junk Food Advertising Ban: Why I’m Not Thrilled

by Bettina Elias Siegel on March 5, 2014

Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama and the USDA made headlines by announcing a proposal to ban the marketing of junk food and sugary beverages on school campuses.  Timed to coincide with the fourth anniversary of Ms. Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative, the proposal would restrict on-campus advertising to only those products meeting the relatively stringent nutritional requirements of the new, interim “Smart Snacks in School” rules, and it would cover branded marketing on school vending machines, posters, menu boards, cups, food service equipment and more.

This move was described by Politico as “an unusually aggressive position for the administration,” and it was praised by food policy advocates.  But as much as I support curbing junk food ads on school campuses, I’m not cheering this news with the same enthusiasm as some of my colleagues.  Here’s why.

To read some of the press reports, like this one in the Washington Post, one could easily conclude, as I first did, that USDA is actually imposing regulations on school districts to limit on-campus branded marketing.  But instead USDA is requiring school districts to include the requisite language regarding junk food marketing in their wellness policies, which is not quite the same thing.

Here in Houston ISD, I’m currently serving my fourth year on our School Health Advisory Council (SHAC), the group of parents, district employees, public health experts and other concerned citizens responsible for writing and updating our district’s wellness policy.  (Coincidentally, at last month’s SHAC meeting, our food and nutrition subcommittee was hashing out language to curb both overt and incidental brand advertising on our school campuses.)  But even as we engage in this important work, I’m mindful of the fact that wellness policies can only go so far without active support from the school board, superintendent, and committed school principals.

As Stacy Whitman noted in a 2013 post on School Bites:

All too often, par­ents and school staff, all the way up to the prin­ci­pal, don’t even know that their school well­ness pol­icy exists. . . . And since there’s no penalty for fail­ure to com­ply with the USDA reg­u­la­tions? Yup, you guessed it: After being writ­ten, many school well­ness poli­cies are set aside and for­got­ten.

It’s true that the new proposed rule would attempt to strengthen wellness policy enforcement by requiring districts to designate an official to ensure local school compliance.  But, at least at present, the ultimate check is a triennial audit by the state agencies overseeing federal school meal programs; this audit covers hundreds of items, everything from food safety to sanitation, and also includes determining whether a district has a wellness policy in place that’s being enforced.

Yet, at least here in Texas, that particular inquiry is a pretty meaningless exercise.   According to one knowledgable person with whom I spoke, when the Texas Department of Agriculture (which administers the state’s school meal programs) audits Houston ISD’s food services operations, it only “makes sure you have a wellness policy and asks to see the school board meeting minutes where it was voted on.  Then they just assume it’s implemented.  There’s never been any enforcement at all on that.”

An excerpt from a self-assessment tool for school districts preparing for a Texas Department of Agriculture audit.

So if we really want to get junk food marketing out of schools, wouldn’t it send a stronger message if USDA regulated it directly, rather than using the weaker mechanism of a wellness policy to do so?  Was Let’s Move! worried that the former avenue would receive more food industry pushback?  When I raised this issue with the First Lady’s press office, I was referred to the USDA, which then declined to comment publicly on the matter.

Even apart from the use of wellness policies to achieve its goals, it’s not clear how comprehensive the final rule will be.  It’s laudable that overt on-campus marketing would be restricted to foods and beverages meeting the Smart Snacks in School rules, but since those are the only foods and beverages which may be sold after July 2014, that was likely to happen anyway.  (In other words, why would a cafeteria put up signage for a product it can’t even sell?)

The remaining areas of concern, in my opinion, are the more subtle ways in which food and beverage manufacturers reach our kids:  sponsorship of scoreboards and securing the soda “pouring rights” at after school sporting events; reward programs like reading books in exchange for restaurant coupons; industry created, in-class curricula using branded product names; brand-sponsored contests; off-site events such as a fast food restaurant donating a portion of receipts from a given night; and the ubiquitous “box top” programs.  Of those, marketing at after school sporting events (and all other after school events) is already exempt from the proposal and as for the rest, USDA “invites the public to submit research findings and other descriptive data” as it finalizes the rule.  (I certainly intend to do so.)

As I’ve said many times on this blog, I’m a realist, not an idealist and so I remain eternally grateful that we have a First Lady willing to take on these issues.   But in this case, it remains to be seen how effective her efforts will be.  Forward-thinking districts will curb junk food marketing, and probably would have done so regardless of the USDA proposal.  But those districts most in need of reform may just maintain the status quo, even as their well crafted wellness policy sits in a file drawer, gathering dust.

[Editorial note: This is true of everything I write on The Lunch Tray, but let me be clear that all opinions expressed here are entirely my own and do not reflect the views of the Houston ISD School Health Advisory Council or any of its members. ]

[Editorial Update 3/7/14:  After a lot of feedback from readers, I’ve changed some of my views on this issue.  More here.]

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Dana Woldow March 5, 2014 at 9:22 am

I’ll go you one further – in my humble opinion, there should be no advertising of any kind to kids at school – ever.

Back in 1999, the San Francisco Board of Education adopted the Commercial Free Schools Act, prohibiting exclusive vendor contracts, the use of curriculum materials featuring brand names, and a variety of other regulation. While this policy could be strengthened, it is a much more realistic starting point for any school district wanting to get serious about getting commercial interests out of the schools.

While I am happy that Mrs. Obama is shining a light on the disgusting practice of advertising to children in the one place where they should feel safe from predatory corporations, just requiring some weak standards in a school wellness policy makes for a good PR event for the White House but little else.

Read the SFUSD Commercial Free Schools Act here: http://tinyurl.com/3bs2jv7

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Bettina Elias Siegel March 5, 2014 at 10:04 am

A really good point I wish I’d made here. I’m glad we might no longer see ads for the worst of the worst, by even ads for the “better for you” junk food have no place in schools. Food companies know that lifelong brand loyalties start at an early age, and they’re willing to spend a reported $149 million to get into schools by any means possible. Thanks for this comment and the link.

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Hanna Saltzman March 5, 2014 at 10:20 am

Wonderful, thoughtful post, Bettina – and I agree with all of it. It’s great that Michelle is finally talking about food marketing in a big way, but these regulations need to be binding to be effective. I’m glad you tried to contact Michelle Obama’s press office, and then the USDA (and a lack of response is often telling in itself).

While discussing her announcement earlier this week with several other health advocates, I learned that the marketing policies have room for huge loopholes, even when a school does adopt them. E.g. a junk food brand can make a slightly “healthier” version of its normal product and then sell it in schools with the same packaging as its normal product. These “healthier” versions are only sold in schools, so when parents and kids go to the grocery store, they see what they think is the same bag of chips as in school lunch, and because it’s sold in schools, they buy it, thinking it’s healthier — when actually, they’re buying the unhealthy version. Deceptive!! A colleague in New Haven told me about that — have you seen it happening in your district in TX as well?

Also, Dana, I SO agree that ALL marketing should be banned from schools! It’s predatory and misleading no matter what’s being marketed, and like you replied, Bettina, it gets kids hooked on (usually unhealthy) brands for life.

BTW, when the announcement happened we pointed out some of the problems you mention to the press: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2014/02/25/282507974/new-rules-would-curb-how-kids-are-sold-junk-food-at-school

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Stacy @School-Bites.com March 5, 2014 at 10:36 am

I’m with you, Bettina! When I first heard about the new rules, I cheered. But then I realized they are unlikely to change a thing at my kids’ school. I LOVE our First Lady for all she is doing to promote school wellness, but we need policies that are specific, mandatory and enforced. Too many schools (including my kids’) are falling through the cracks. Thank you for bringing attention to this and for the link to my blog!!

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Mark Bishop March 5, 2014 at 10:53 am

I agree with your post, but I approached it from a different perspective.

On one hand, I’m on my school’s wellness team and I see how limiting a wellness policy can be if you don’t have support of the administration.

On the other hand, USDA has such limited authority over this issue and they got really creative in getting this issue onto the table. I commend USDA and FLOTUS in taking steps to make sure schools, at minimum, start talking about this issue (hopefully schools will do more, but I too am skeptical). I’d love to see a real ban on junk food marketing (or all advertising for that matter) but with limited federal levers, and with a culture of local control of our schools, it seems that USDA pushed the envelope of their authority, and did it quite creatively. I think this is an important early step.

I agree this will not lead to an immediate elimination of junk food marketing in our country, but it could be an early step that leads to a better understanding in the education community around the connection between health, advertising and academic success.

As you mentioned, the next steps is to make sure these recommendations (or stronger ones) stay in the proposed rule. There is a 60 day public comment period and there will be lots of push back from industry.

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Karen March 5, 2014 at 11:52 am

As a government employee working in a field far, far removed from the USDA and the Texas Dept of Ag, my comment is this: for the most efficient and relevant implementation of a policy, verification should be pushed down to the lowest level possible. And that’s why the “self assessment form” looks the way it looks. HISD should have the authority to manage the requirement and should take the opportunity to do its own strong audit of how the wellness policy is working in its schools instead of relying on higher level gov’t agencies for this. I guess the question then becomes “what is the consequence of failure to implement the policy” if it’s only verified at the school board level? Is this a question of unfunded mandates from the Fed? Have I just completely gone of the rails and missed your point?

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Bettina Elias Siegel March 5, 2014 at 4:51 pm

Thanks to all who’ve commented here today. I’m going to have a follow up post on this topic, incorporating many of your thoughts, either tomorrow or Friday.

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Bettina Elias Siegel March 7, 2014 at 7:05 am

Here’s a follow-up post in which I dial back a few of my assertions made here.

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