Self-Regulation of Kids’ Food Advertising: A Doomed Effort

sugarcerealsadface

In prior posts I’ve told you about the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), a voluntary effort by the leading food and beverage companies to rein in their marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks to kids.

In the past, this initiative came up short because each participating company could set its own (often laughable) standards for what constitutes a “better-for-you” food or beverage that could be advertised to kids (see, e.g., “Fox Guards Henhouse: Industry Self-Regulation of Children’s Food Advertising.)

But in a calculated move to ward off possible (voluntary) federal guidelines, the CFBAI in 2014 instituted what it called “meaningful, science-based” nutrition criteria to apply across the board to all of its participating companies.  That certainly sounded like good news on its face. But at the time of the announcement, the New York Times rightly noted that the new standard wouldn’t “require food makers to change much — two-thirds of the products the companies now advertise already meet them. And the levels fall far short of nutritional standards proposed by regulators.”

Here’s CFBAI’s 2015 product list and here are a few photos to show you how weak the nutritional standards remain today:

So it was not surprising to read a new report last week in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine which found that “the industry has done everything it promised, in technical terms. Yet, despite consistent compliance, self-regulation has been ineffective in shifting the landscape of food marketing to children away from an overwhelming emphasis on obesogenic products.”

The study’s researchers used the “Go, Slow, Whoa” categories established by the National Institutes of Health to evaluate the products marketed to children throughout 2013, and found that “four of every five food ads (80.5%) aired during children’s programming still promoted nutritionally deficient products, or so-called Whoa foods, which pose health risks when consumed in abundance.”  Put another way, the researchers concluded that “the nutritional standards employed by companies participating in the CFBAI do not necessarily reflect high benchmarks.”

Indeed.

The CFBAI responded to the study the only way it really could: by lashing out at the Go, Slow, Whoa standards, which the organization asserted are “simplistic,” “outdated” and ready to be retired.

Perhaps at this point, it might be worth refreshing everyone’s memory about the Go, Slow, Whoa standards.  Do you see anything objectionable, controversial or outdated about this dietary advice?

go slow whoa

Yeah, me neither.

In a circular twist, the CFBAI also attacked the Go, Slow, Whoa standards by saying they’re at odds with foods allowed in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the School Breakfast Program (SBP).  In other words, because the food industry has managed to shoehorn nutritionally questionable products into the school food guidelines, those foods are per se healthy and should be aggressively marketed to kids, even kids who are too young to understand the persuasive intent of advertising.

To address that shaky proposition, a few pictures of NSLP- and SBP-approved foods (made by CFBAI members) say it all:

The bottom line is that the processed food industry is in the business of creating highly processed foods.  That’s its entire raison d’être. And highly processed foods are the very foods children (as well as the rest of us) should avoid eating, at least most of the time, to maintain optimal health and to reduce the risk of obesity.

So asking this industry to set its own nutritional standards for a children’s advertising ban is a doomed effort.  Yes, industry has made strides by curbing the advertising of candy, soda and other worst-of-the-worst foods, but expecting it to go much further — without governmental regulation — is a pipe dream.

Or, put another way, we could condense the entire American Journal of Preventative Medicine study down to these ten words buried within it:

. . . profit motives are at cross-purposes with concerns about children’s health

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Will the Celebrity “FNV” Campaign Be Co-Opted by Big Food?

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 6.37.54 AMLast week I applauded the new, celebrity-filled “FNV” campaign which is designed to promote greater fruit and vegetable consumption (“Celebrities Marketing Vegetables to My Kids? Bring. It. On.”)  The marketing campaign is being launched by the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA), the nonprofit arm of the First Lady’s Let’s Move! initiative, and it was born out of a 2014 New York Times piece in which writer Michael Moss asked an ad agency to create a junk-food-style ad campaign for broccoli.  (Here’s the teaser video for the FNV campaign.)

My post sparked a Twitter debate in which some of my colleagues expressed serious concern about the FNV campaign, primarily for two reasons.  The first relates to advertising to children, and tomorrow Casey Hinds (U.S. Healthy Kids) will have a post in Beyond Chron explaining why she objects to FNV’s use of celebrities to encourage kids to eat even healthy foods like fruits and vegetables.  The next day, Wednesday, Beyond Chron will publish my rebuttal to Casey’s post on that topic.

So putting aside momentarily the issue of advertising to kids, the other main objection voiced in the debate was that the FNV campaign will likely be co-opted by the food industry and used to promote less-than-healthful products like fruit juice and highly processed fruit and vegetable foods.  And we do know from bitter experience that the food industry can be quite self-serving in setting its own parameters for what constitutes a “healthy” food or beverage (see, e.g., my 2011 post “Fox Guards Henhouse: Industry’s ‘Self-Regulation’ of Children’s Food Advertising.”)

Michael Moss, who was following our Twitter debate, summed up that aspect of our conversation this way:

moss tweet

I realized during our Twitter discussion that none of us actually had the requisite facts to answer that question.  So last week I contacted the Partnership for a Healthier America for more information.  Here’s what I learned:

FNV Ads Won’t Directly Promote Brands, and Participating Brands Won’t Use Celebrities

Even though the FNV campaign is underwritten in part by food companies, such as the Bolthouse Farms division of Campbell’s, PHA’s spokesperson assured me that the ads will be “focused on increased consumption and sales of fruits and vegetables, not on individual brands.”  So, apparently, we will not see ads with Nick Jonas or Kristen Bell holding up a bag of Bolthouse Farms seasoned carrots, and instead they will promote only generic fruits and vegetables.

That said, I was told that:

supporting organizations may feature FNV in their [advertising] and co-branded activations may occur (i.e. in-store tastings of branded commodities with FNV logo and message present). Regardless, supporting organizations can only use the FNV brand with prior PHA approval.

So does this mean that Campbell’s could put the likeness of Nick Jonas on the packaging for its Bolthouse Farms carrots?  In a follow-up answer, I was told, “At this time, [sponsoring companies are] restricted to use of the FNV logo and messages.”

I should note here that even if the FNV campaign were promoting branded products, or if at some future date branded products are allowed to use celebrity likenesses, I would still be fine with that.  In that regard I differ from food policy experts like Marion Nestle who, writing last week in Food Politics, expressed some overall discomfort with the FNV campaign, noting that “Marketing is not education. Education is about imparting knowledge and promoting wisdom and critical thinking. Marketing is about creating demand for a product.”

But unfortunately we don’t live in a world of quiet, thoughtful analysis.  We live in a world in which we are all bombarded by powerfully influential ad messages, to the tune of billions of dollars a year, and these ads almost invariably entice us to eat the least healthful foods and beverages.  We are paying a stiff price for that unfettered industry influence, in terms of the degradation of the American diet and the rise in obesity and related diseases.  Since that industry megaphone will never be silenced, in my view, counter-marketing for healthful foods is not only acceptable but urgently needed.

My only (previously expressed) caveat is that when it comes to children, I would want to limit that marketing to “minimally processed fruits and vegetables.”  But this leads us to the crux of our Twitter debate: just how will PHA define “fruits and vegetables” for the purposes of the FNV campaign?

The FNV Will Not Promote Highly Processed Fruit and Vegetable Foods

To get the answer to that critical question, I asked the PHA spokesperson:

Will the campaign promote or depict fruits and vegetables in processed form (such as applesauce, fruit roll-ups, canned fruit or vegetables) or will it only show fruits and vegetables in their natural state?  If the former, are there any set parameters used by the FNV campaign to decide what processed products may be included in the campaign?

Her answer:

FNV will incorporate all forms of fruit and vegetable products – fresh, frozen, canned, dried – that do not contain excessive calories, added sugar or sweeteners, fat or salt.

While I suppose there’s a bit of wiggle room in “excessive calories,” that ambiguity shouldn’t matter if PHA adheres to the rest of its litmus test.  In other words, once you rule out added sugar, fat and salt (the Holy Trinity of processed food flavor enhancers), you’ve essentially closed the door on highly processed foods being promoted via the FNV campaign.

That is very good news.

There Are No Current Plans to Promote Juice

When I asked if the FNV campaign would promote juice, I was told by the PHA, “Not at this time.”

This answer concerns me. There are many health experts who believe that even 100% fruit juice, due to its lack of fiber and high sugar content, is a driver of obesity, and the last thing Americans need is more sweet beverages in their diet.  I know some of the people behind the FNV campaign are paying attention to our debate on these issues, and I sincerely hope they stick to their current plan of not using the FNV campaign to promote juice.

* * *

I want to thank the PHA for responding so quickly to my questions and I hope this additional information is useful to those of you interested in this campaign.  Tomorrow I’ll share on social media the link to Casey’s anti-FNV post in Beyond Chron and then will share my response on Wednesday.

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What She Said

One thing I love about being part of a blogging community is the way we can draw upon each other’s work and resources to advocate for our common goals.

That’s how I felt when I read this recent post from Sally Kuzemchak of Real Mom Nutrition, addressing critics who think that instead of reining in the food and beverage industries’ $2-billion-a-year effort to market junk food to children, parents should just stand firm and say “no” to their kids.  This is a common refrain from those who oppose limits on youth junk food marketing and Sally’s post is such a definitive and perfect response, from now on I’m just going to link to it every time this issue comes up and say, “What she said.”  It’s definitely worth your time to read.

There’s only one point on which I and some of my colleagues (including, perhaps, Sally) differ when it comes to the marketing of food to children.  I’m previously on record as supporting youth-directed marketing of just one type of product —  whole or minimally processed fruits and vegetables — even though some advocates believe even this type of marketing is taking unfair advantage of kids.

But as I wrote in a debate on this issue with advocate Casey Hinds in Beyond Chron earlier this year, “Given that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables is unequivocally good for children, how different are [such] efforts from using Sesame Street characters to encourage kids to brush their teeth or licensing Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat character to get them reading?”  You can read the entire debate with Casey here.

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Today I Debate the Ethics of Marketing Healthy Food to Kids

Screen Shot 2014-09-08 at 9.18.52 AMToday on Beyond Chron, I debate my friend and colleague Casey Hinds of US Healthy Kids on the ethics of marketing healthy foods like fruits and vegetables to children.  You can read my “pro” piece here, and Casey’s “con” here.

Thanks to Beyond Chron for giving us this platform, and to Casey for having the idea of a debate in the first place.  I’d love to hear your thoughts, too, in a comment here on The Lunch Tray or on Beyond Chron.

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Using Junk Food Tactics – and Flavorings – To Market Carrots to Kids

Packaging from the original "Eat 'Em Like Junk  Food" effort
Packaging from the original “Eat ‘Em Like Junk Food” effort

In 2010 I told you about a new $25 million ad campaign, sponsored by carrot growers, to attract kids to baby carrots through the use of junk food-style packaging and marketing.  Back then I mocked the effort, saying:

Somehow I don’t think today’s kids are going to willingly trade in their Flamin’ Hot Cheetos for carrots, no matter how cool the packaging (but at least with carrots, the orange doesn’t come off on your fingers.)

But it turned out the last laugh was on me.  Just one year later I reported that the “Eat ‘Em Like Junk Food” campaign, led by former Coca-Cola executive Jeff Dunn, was actually successful in increasing baby carrot sales.

Since then, many of us have learned a lot more about Dunn and his efforts from Michael Moss’s best-selling Salt, Sugar, Fat, which profiles how this once-enthusiastic promoter of sugary soda had a crisis of conscience, left his high level position at Coke and decided to use his marketing skills for good.

Yet despite Dunn’s early success with the “Eat ‘Em Like Junk Food” campaign, I still remained skeptical of his goals precisely because carrots lack the headliners of Moss’s book:  salt, sugar and fat.  It’s Big Food’s careful manipulation of these palate-pleasing ingredients that hook us on junk food and keep us coming back for more, and so it seemed to me that the humble carrot was never going to be able to compete on a serious level with the micro-engineered Nacho Cheese Dorito.

veggie snackers carrotsBut once again I’ve underestimated Dunn’s savvy.  This week NPR reports that Dunn is implementing the next phase of his carrot campaign, in which junk-food style flavorings like Ranch and Chile Lime are added to baby carrots in a product called Veggie Snackers:

When kids open the package and shake in the seasoning, the carrots take on some of the characteristics of chips like Doritos. “They give you that crunch and flavor,” says Jeff Dunn, CEO of Bolthouse. “You’re going to lick your fingers, and get that same sensory [experience] you get with salty snacks.”

(Here’s a video of how the Veggie Snacker packaging works.)

There are those who object on a philosophical level to the use of any junk-food marketing tactics to market to kids, even if the product itself is healthy.  (I should note here that the flavorings in Veggie Snackers are 100% natural.)  For example, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) tweeted yesterday:

Is commercializing the veggie aisle & selling kids on extreme carrots that taste like Doritos the best way to improve kids’ diets?

And Michele Simon of Eat Drink Politics, also a staunch opponent of any marketing to children, tweeted:

how will kids learn to eat more veggies if they must always be heavily seasoned and marketed?

But Barry Cohen, who tweets under the handle @GeneralHealthy, responded:

Idealism vs. meeting kids where their brains & their parents’ brains are. Is eating more veggies good?

And he also asked:

If we triple kids’ consumption of whole veggies and displace the real junk…isn’t that a good thing?

This debate echoes another, similar one that took place here on The Lunch Tray last November.  At that time, First Lady Michelle Obama had just announced that the Sesame Workshop and the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) would join the Partnership for a Healthier America to help promote fruits and vegetables to kids.  Under the deal, which Mrs. Obama helped broker, PMA’s growers, suppliers and retailers are allowed to use for two years iconic characters such as Elmo and Big Bird in messaging and on produce sold in stores — without paying any licensing fees.

In that case, too, both the CCFC and Simon felt that any marketing to children was wrong, even for fruits and vegetables.  But as I wrote in “It’s OK, Let Elmo Be a Carrot Pusher,” I don’t believe junk food will ever disappear from our society, nor do I believe that our elected officials will impose meaningful curbs on the marketing of junk food to children any time soon.  And we also know that currently only one in five high schoolers are getting the recommended “five servings a day” of produce.  

Given those hard realities, and given that I will always be more of a realist than an idealist, I’m  willing to let people like Dunn try to beat the junk food industry at its own game and use the same tactics to draw children to healthier food.  And with respect to the flavorings per se, is the addition of a chile lime spice mix so very different from offering kids carrots with ranch dressing or hummus,or making sweetened yogurt- or sour cream-based dips for fruit — all time-honored, mom-approved techniques for getting kids to eat more produce?

But what do you think, TLT’ers?  Are you disturbed by the use of Doritos-style marketing and flavoring to entice kids to eat baby carrots? Or are you, like me, wondering if you can get your hands on this product at your local grocery store?  Let me hear what you have to say in a comment below.

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Last Day to Tell USDA You Support Strong Wellness Policies!

Back in February, USDA released proposed rules for district wellness policies which, if implemented, will hold schools and districts far more accountable in improving their campus health environments.  Among other advances, the new rules ask districts to set specific wellness goals (versus the vague, purely aspirational statements contained in most policies around the country right now) and would require each school in a district to report annually on its progress in meeting those goals.

Another big leap forward is a provision which would require schools to limit on-campus food and beverage marketing to only those items which meet the relatively stringent nutritional requirements of the new “Smart Snacks in Schools”rules. (While I originally criticized USDA for not regulating junk food ads directly, as opposed to investing districts with this authority, I changed my views to some degree on that question shortly thereafter.)

The comment period on the rules closes today and you can easily show your support by sending USDA an email via PreventObesity.net or via The Center for Science in the Public Interest.  (The rules could go further, of course, by banning all advertising on school campuses. Via Marion Nestle of Food Politics, I learned that the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood is seeking signatures on a letter asking for a complete in-school advertising ban, so you can sign that as well if you agree with that position.)

Thanks in advance for supporting stronger wellness policies in schools!

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 8,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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Was I Too Quick to Condemn Ms. Obama’s School Junk Food Ad Ban?

Two days ago, I told you about proposed USDA rules, promoted by the First Lady and released on the fourth anniversary of her Let’s Move! initiative, which would curb the marketing of foods and beverages on school campuses.  Specifically, if adopted, the new rules would restrict on-campus advertising during the school day to foods and beverages meeting the relatively stringent nutritional requirements of the new interim “Smart Snacks in School” rules.

While I applauded any effort to get junk food ads off of school campuses, I was particularly critical in my post of the proposed mechanism to bring about this result, namely, school wellness policies.  I questioned why USDA didn’t just directly regulate on-campus advertising (they way it directly regulates school snacks, for example) and I worried that wellness policies are too often ignored by school districts to do much good in this area.

As soon as I posted on Wednesday, I started to receive quite a lot of feedback, most of it supportive but some less so.  Wilma (TLT’s resident, anonymous school food professional) contacted me by email to politely point out the many ways in which the rule would also strengthen wellness policies and their oversight (more on that below).  Then on Twitter, Michele Simon of Eat Drink Politics speculated that USDA may lack the rule-making authority to directly regulate advertising on campus.  (Michele has a record of opposing any advertising to children, even for fruits and vegetables, so it sounds like she’s not a fan of the proposed rule for different reasons.  She  indicated that she’ll be writing her own post on the proposed rule, which I’m eager to read and will share with you as well.)  And Mark Bishop, Vice President of Policy and Communications at the Healthy Schools Campaign left a comment here in which generally agreed with me but still noted:

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.

Meanwhile, last night happened to be Houston ISD’s monthly School Health Advisory Council (SHAC) meeting and that committee, on which I serve, is very much in the thick of re-writing our district’s wellness policy. So in preparation for that meeting, I really delved into the proposed rules in great detail (in a way I now wish I had done before writing Wednesday’s post) and I’ve come to agree with Wilma that, if the rules are adopted in their entirety, wellness policies around the country will be substantially improved.

Right now, in most districts, wellness policies are vaguely written, purely aspirational documents that few people in the district even know about.  But USDA is now asking schools to get surprisingly specific, asking them to set:

“Strong, clear goals with specific and measurable objectives and benchmarks stating who will make what change, by how much, where, and by when, with attention to both short term and long term goals.  . . . . Most measurable goals, objectives and benchmarks will include numbers.”  [emphasis in original]

That’s a radical change from past practice, and the commentary on the rules offers even more specifics in terms of the types of implementation USDA would like to see.  Moreover, USDA would also now require each individual school within a district to annually report on its progress in meeting those goals, including giving a summary of the school events or activities that facilitated wellness policy implementation in the prior year.  That’s another big change, since in the past only the district had to report on overall compliance and it could offer vague assurances rather than specifics.  (Districts themselves will continue to report, but on a triennial basis.)  All of that is great news, not just for the narrow issue of the junk food marketing rules but all facets of promoting student wellness on school campuses.

Ultimately, the strength of any wellness policy will still always depend on the commitment of the district issuing it.  But since posting on Wednesday I’ve also been reflecting on the fact that even more direct legislation (the solution I wanted to see for junk food advertising on campuses) can be ineffective if a district is dead set on ignoring it.   Who can forget how here in freedom-loving Texas, our legislators were so outraged when Texas’s Department of Agriculture tried to enforce our state’s competitive food rules that they actually passed their own conflicting law to guarantee the rights of kids to sell junk food on school campuses?  That kind of recalcitrant attitude is hard to change, whether via a district wellness policy or a federal law.

So those are my further thoughts on Wednesday’s post, and I’m grateful to all of you who took the time to share your views, even when some of you gently chastised me for missing the boat on the wellness policy-related aspects of this issue.  I do continue to have lingering concerns about the proposed food marketing rules per se, as I noted in Wednesday’s post:

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.

The comment period for these proposed rules ends on April 28th, so I urge you to share your thoughts with the USDA.  When I submit my own comments, I’ll post them in an open letter here.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 8,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join over 4,200 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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

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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Fast Food Industry Spends $4.6 Billion to Target Your Kids

Last week, a few of you questioned my endorsement of a new arrangement between the Sesame Street Workshop and the Produce Marketing Association in which Sesame Street characters will be used to market fresh fruits and vegetables to children.  There’s an understandable concern that kids, because they are uniquely impressionable, should not be manipulated in that fashion — even when the only result will be improved dietary health.

french fries and ketchupAs I’ve said here before, in an ideal world kids wouldn’t be the target of any marketing.  But for a sobering reality check on just how far we are from that ideal, I wanted to share with you a new report issued last week by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity regarding the fast food industry’s targeting of kids.

According to the report, in 2012 the fast food industry spent a staggering $4.6 billion to reach children and teens and, not surprisingly, the majority of those marketing efforts promoted  unhealthy foods and beverages.

Here’s one set of particularly troubling findings from the report that caught my eye:

. . .  McDonald’s . . . spent 2.7 times as much to advertise its products ($972 million) as all fruit, vegetable, bottled water, and milk advertisers combined ($367 million). On average, U.S. preschoolers viewed 2.8 fast food ads on TV every day in 2012, children (6-11 years) viewed 3.2 ads per day, and teens viewed 4.8 ads per day. Six companies were responsible for more than 70% of all TV ads viewed by children and teens: McDonald’s, Subway, Burger King, Domino’s, Yum! Brands (Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC), and Wendy’s.

I encourage you to read the entire report here.
Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 7,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 4,000 TLT followers on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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It’s OK – Let Elmo Be a Carrot Pusher

sesame street fruit vegetableLast week, First Lady Michelle Obama announced that the Sesame Workshop and the Produce Marketing Association (PMA) will join the Partnership for a Healthier America to help promote fruits and vegetables to kids.  Specifically, PMA’s growers, suppliers and retailers will be allowed for two years to use iconic characters such as Elmo and Big Bird in messaging and on produce sold in stores — all without paying any licensing fees.

The arrangement represents an extraordinary boon to the produce industry, since, as Helena Bottemiller Evich notes in Politico:

By not charging the produce industry, the Sesame Workshop is forgoing millions in licensing fees. As its website reports, product licensing accounts for as much as 38 percent — the largest chunk — of the not-for-profit’s $113 million in annual revenue.

Now, there are some food advocates who object to the marketing of anything to kids, even healthy foods, on the grounds that

[m]arketing branded produce such as Kung-Fu Panda Edamame to children instills the unhealthy habit of choosing food based on marketing cues such as celebrity, rather than on a child’s own innate hunger, taste, or good nutrition.

A few advocates also criticize these sorts of corporate arrangements with the White House as lacking transparency and bestowing undeserved good PR on the companies entering into them.

But I’m fine letting Elmo push carrots on unsuspecting kids, and here’s why:

It’s a sad but undeniable fact that kids today live in a marketing-saturated world, with the food and beverage industries specifically targeting children with almost $2 billion per year in advertising expenditures, spent not just on traditional media but also online games, social media and other avenues that parents are hard-pressed to monitor.  And that marketing is invariably promoting the least healthy foods.

A governmental effort to curb that onslaught  through purely voluntary guidelines was soundly defeated by industry in 2012.  Moreover, as the Reuters news agency noted in a special report on food industry lobbying and childhood obesity:

At every level of government, the food and beverage industries won fight after fight during the last decade. They have never lost a significant political battle in the United States despite mounting scientific evidence of the role of unhealthy food and children’s marketing in obesity.

Since I am (as you now know from last week’s Civil Eats post) more of a realist than an idealist, I’m not especially hopeful that our elected officials will suddenly find the courage to defy Big Food — and forgo its campaign contributions — nor am I hopeful that industry will change its ways voluntarily on a widespread basis.  So faced with this status quo, I’m willing to overcome understandable squeamishness about marketing to children and try to beat the industry at its own game.

And we know that character-driven marketing does work with kids.  A recent Cornell study, for example, demonstrated convincingly that children are more likely to choose an apple over a cookie if the apple bears a sticker featuring a beloved character — in that case, as a matter of fact, Elmo.

Moreover, as I noted in a prior Lunch Tray/HuffPo post (“Is it Wrong to Market Even Healthy Foods to Kids?”), the notion that actively marketing fresh fruits and vegetables to kids will override their “innate hunger” just doesn’t fly with me.

There’s a reason why one of Michael Pollan’s most famous Food Rules is “If you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, then you’re probably not hungry.” We mindlessly overeat when food triggers our hardwired love of salt, sugar, fat and refined carbs, but I don’t know of any kids — or adults, for that matter — who gorge on fruits and vegetables to a degree that’s detrimental to their health.

Or, to put it another way, right now only one in five high schoolers are getting the recommended “five servings a day” of produce.  If, as a result of the Sesame Street/PMA partnership, children are suddenly eating too many apples and carrots, that’s a “problem” I think we all can live with.

So kudos to the Sesame Workshop for letting Elmo and friends hawk produce for free.  Now stay tuned until 2016 to see if the plan actually increases kids’ consumption of these healthful foods.  I’m guessing it will.

[Ed. Note: To learn how Madison Avenue might effectively market broccoli to adults, check out last Sunday’s New York Times magazine story by Sugar Salt Fat author Michael Moss.  Interestingly, according to Politico, Moss may have played a tangential role in bringing Sesame Street and PMA together at the White House.]

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 7,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 4,000 TLT followers on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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What We Missed While We Were Talking About Chicken (A Kid/Food News Round-Up)

While this blog was dominated by the discussion of Chinese-processed chicken in school meals, a lot has been going on in the kid-and-food-news world.  Here’s a quick roundup to keep you up to speed.

First Lady Addresses Problem of Junk Food Marketing to Kids

On September 19th, Michelle Obama convened a landmark summit at the White House to discuss the food and beverage industries’ marketing to children, a matter of great concern to me and many other food policy activists.  Representatives from industry and the public health and academic communities were in attendance  and the First Lady’s speech was widely lauded for its candor.  (See, for example, Marion Nestle’s recap here.)  But Michele Simon laments that it was the wrong Obama taking on the issue.  Whether anything productive comes from the summit remains to be seen, but kudos to Mrs. Obama for at least squarely addressing the issue.

McDonald’s Improves its Kids’ Meals — But With a Catch?

Last week McDonald’s announced that it was partnering with the Clinton Foundation’s Alliance for a Healthier Generation to improve its Happy Meals.  (Read the text of the announcement here.)  One of the commitments made by McDonald’s was agreeing to promote only water, milk and juice as the standard Happy Meal beverage, including removing soda from its menu boards.  But Casey Hinds of KY Healthy Kids decided to look at the actual text of the McDonalds/AHG agreement and found that soda can indeed still appear on menu boards as a Happy Meals beverage choice.   The Center for Science in the Public Interest cried foul.  And Marion Nestle pointed out that, at any rate, the promised Happy Meal improvements are going to be a long time coming.

Is Biased Reporting Hurting the Food Movement?

Food policy advocate Nancy Huehnergarth had a great piece in The Hill earlier this week pointing out how news reporting regarding food policy initiatives, such as the healthier new school meal standards, is often misleading and sensationalistic, which only harms those efforts.

WashPo Special Report on Childhood Obesity — Good News?

Last week the Washington Post issued a feature on childhood obesity and the degree to which the tide might be turning.  You can find all the collected stories here.

Sugar and the School Food Environment

The Center for Investigative Reporting has issued a today a good report on the lack of regulation on sugar in the school food environment.  You can read that here.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 7,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 4,000 TLT followers on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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Join Me For Tonight’s TweetChat Re: McDonald’s and School Marketing

Tweetchat graphic 2A public school child is taught reading literacy with McDonald’s-branded materials.   A teacher hands a child a McDonald’s restaurant coupon as a reward for good performance.  Schools raise money through McTeacher Nights where the school staff dishes out fast food for students and their families.

What do you think about these incursions by McDonald’s into the school sphere?

Join me tonight from 8:00-9:00pm EST for a TweetChat sponsored by Corporate Accountability International as part of their “Moms Not Lovin’ It” initiative to share your thoughts.  Jut follow hashtag #momsnotlovinit to chat with me and the rest of the panelists.  It’s a great line-up!

Leah Segedie (@bookieboo) (Tweetchat Host)

Corporate Accountiblity International:  @StopCorpAbuse

Casey Hinds: @CaseyHinds

Yale Rudd Center on Food Policy & Obesity: @YaleRuddCenter

Food MythBusters: @FoodMythbusters

Nancy Huehnergarth: @nyshepa

Kia Robertson: @eatingarainbow

Jessica Gottlieb: @Jessica Gottlieb

Jean Layton: @GFDocotr

Kimberly Grabinski: @Whatsthatsmell

Chrystal Johnson: @HappyMothering

Bettina Elias Siegel @thelunchtray

I’ll see you tonight and, in the meantime, check out my “Related Posts” below for previous Lunch Tray posts on the issue of junk food and fast food marketing in schools.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 6,200 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also follow TLT on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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Is It Wrong to Market Even *Healthy* Food to Kids?

That’s the contention put forth by public health lawyer Michele Simon (Eat Drink Politics) and Susan Linn, Director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, in a recent article.

Noting — as I often have on this blog — that cognitive deficits make children especially vulnerable to the persuasive power of advertising, Simon and Linn object to any use of cartoon characters and other standard tactics for marketing to kids, even for objectively healthy foods such as this:

kung fu edamame

Here’s the crux of their position:

Some advocates argue that deceiving children to eat healthy food is good strategy. But such tactics are actually harmful. A primary goal for advocates should be for children to develop a healthy relationship to food. Foisting character-branded products on children undermines that effort. Marketing to children does more than sell products — it inculcates habits and behaviors. Marketing branded produce such as Kung-Fu Panda Edamame to children instills the unhealthy habit of choosing food based on marketing cues such as celebrity, rather than on a child’s own innate hunger, taste, or good nutrition.

Simon and Linn then point to some countries in Europe with bans (to varying degrees) on children’s advertising and assert that “[w]ith enough political will, lawmakers could pass new laws banning marketing to children without running afoul of the First Amendment.”

Putting aside First Amendment issues (which are not, as the authors seem to imply in the article, a matter of settled law),  I do fervently hope that someday our kids can live in a commercial-free world.  But, speaking as a realist, I also think it will be a very long time before the necessary “political will” manifests itself in this country.

Let’s not forget that in 2011 even purely voluntary children’s advertising guidelines — a far cry from an outright ad ban — fell victim to the food industry’s powerful lobby.  Worse, as the Reuters news agency noted in a 2012 special report on food industry lobbying and childhood obesity:

At every level of government, the food and beverage industries won fight after fight during the last decade. They have never lost a significant political battle in the United States despite mounting scientific evidence of the role of unhealthy food and children’s marketing in obesity.

Until such a time as we might have a blanket ban on advertising to children, the processed and fast food industries are reaching our kids at an unprecedented rate – to the tune of almost $2 billion in annual expenditures — and not just through traditional channels such as television, print and school sponsorships, but also through new media such as mobile devices, “advergaming,” interactive campaigns and contests, YouTube videos and more.  And, almost invariably, such advertisements promote unhealthy foods.

Faced with this grossly uneven playing field, I’m not especially troubled by putting Dora the Explorer on a bag of carrot sticks if it helps, even in a small way, to rectify that balance.  On her Eat Drink Politics Facebook page, Simon expressed concern that such manipulation overrides children’s innate hunger cues, but as I responded there:

I don’t believe that positive messaging for whole foods is ever going to override hunger cues.  In other words, I don’t believe any amount of “Sponge-Bobbing” of spinach is going to make kids gorge on spinach. I think overeating has to do with the addictive properties of highly processed food, a la Michael Moss’s “Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us.”

Ideally, though, I’d want to spend less time putting cartoon characters on any products and far more time teaching kids media literacy, arming them with the ability to see through all attempts to manipulate them via advertising and marketing.  That’s because, even in countries with children’s advertising restrictions in place, the food industry — surprise, surprise — still manages to reach children.  As the Guardian newspaper reported just last week, the World Health Organization found that, despite a British ban on the advertising of foods with high salt, fat and sugar content during children’s programs, there has been an overall increase in junk food advertising at other times of the day, such as the “family viewing” period between 6pm and 10.30pm when  shows popular with all age groups, like “Britain’s Got Talent” and “The X Factor,” are aired.

Putting aside the flaws in the British ad ban (which, the WHO report notes, is not as strong as blanket bans in a few other EU countries), it’s self-evident that no amount of legislation could entirely insulate children from food advertising in today’s world, where even the inside of the bathroom stall is now considered fair game for marketers.

For that reason, I recently was motivated to help teach young children about food industry manipulation by creating my own kids’ video about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory.”  Garnering almost 11,000 views in the five weeks since its release, I’m  gratified by the positive response it’s received so far.

One homemade video is just a tiny drop in the bucket, of course, but there are many others like me out there focusing primarily on the “inoculation” side of the children’s advertising equation. Parents and teachers can access entirely free media literacy curricula from sources like PBS’s “Don’t Buy It” program, the UK-based Media Smart website, as well as the exciting programs and curricula created by the Yale Prevention Research Center under the leadership of Dr. David Katz.  (In a future post I’ll be sharing more about the latter, which have already reached hundreds of thousands of children.)

Ad bans and media literacy instruction are not mutually exclusive, of course, and I certainly stand with Simon and Linn in their desire to limit harmful media messages directed at kids.  But until our legislators are able to resist the allure of food industry contributions and influence, I’m perfectly willing to take some pages from Big Food’s playbook if doing so can help push children in the right direction when it comes to healthy eating.

But what do you think about all this?  Is it wrong to use cartoon characters and similar methods to encourage the consumption of fruits and vegetables?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 6,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also follow TLT on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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