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.”
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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