I only recently learned of a program going on in my adopted home state of Texas in which Frito-Lay will award cash prizes — ranging from $1,000 to $10,000.00 — to local high school football teams. To earn the money for their chosen school, participants have to enter the nine-digit code from Frito Lay products.
I don’t need to point out the irony here: a company that purveys salty and (mostly) fried products funds athletic programs in a state in which 40% of children are overweight or obese.
And there’s nothing new going on here. Large food manufacturers have long strived to find ways to market their products to school children, on the theory that brand loyalties and taste preferences are formed early and can last a lifetime. In addition, children are tempting market targets in that they lack the critical faculties of adults when they’re exposed to advertising. (In one study among fifth and sixth graders, more than half of the subjects believed every commercial to which they were exposed.)
I recommend Kelly Brownell’s Food Fight (see my summer reading list) for an excellent synopsis of this practice, and all of the ways in which such companies try to infiltrate their way into schools. Brownell describes how food manufacturers have managed to invade what should be a commercial-free zone through vending machines and “pouring rights”; branded foods (like Pizza Hut pizzas) sold in the national school lunch program; the sale of a la carte foods; the use of Channel One television in the classroom; the creation of textbooks replete with math problems that use the products’ names; give-aways of branded items like textbook covers; offering their products as rewards for academic performance (read X number of books over the summer and earn a gift certificate to McDonald’s); and much more.
As long as schools remain underfunded, Big Food’s dollars will always be welcome. Never mind that we’re paying for athletics and other programs — all for our children’s “benefit” — in ways that may ultimately harm them down the road.