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

by Bettina Elias Siegel on March 7, 2014

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.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Stacy @School-Bites.com March 7, 2014 at 7:58 am

I love Mark Bishop’s comment about how the Obama admin and USDA got creative in creating these rules. Perhaps this really isn’t their jurisdiction and they don’t really have the authority to regulate junk food marketing, etc. I, for one, am extremely appreciative of any attempt to make improvements. But the fact remains that too many schools are still drowning in junk food. As you say, “the strength of any wellness policy will still always depend on the commitment of the district issuing it.” So what do we do about districts that remain uncommitted? I feel like a lot of schools are oblivious to the whole Let’s Move! movement, and then there are those that are recalcitrant. As parents, do we just have to sit back and accept that our kids are going to be shoveled full of junk food? Is our only option to continue trying to make change ourselves–and have these efforts be ignored or even opposed in our school districts?

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Casey March 7, 2014 at 8:20 am

“USDA is now asking schools to get surprisingly specific” It’s about time!

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Casey March 7, 2014 at 10:12 am

And the weasling begins: Delaware Valley Superintendent John Bell “I would first make the argument that a sign that just says ‘Pepsi’ is for the company that serves us water and juice.” http://www.poconorecord.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20140307/NEWS/403070345

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Mark Bishop March 7, 2014 at 11:10 am

First of all, Stacy, you make me blush. :)

I agree with Bettina’s comments that essentially say that laws can only go so far. Whether it’s a “weak” guideline or a strong mandate with enforcement mechanisms, ultimately a law can only work with the support of the people. Wellness policies are trying to err on the side of winning our hearts and minds rather than command and control. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. The issue is that change doesn’t happen overnight – it takes time and continued work.

Stacy, as for your comment about is our only option to continue trying to make change ourselves? I think it’s not the only option, but it’s something that we need to get all parents to do. I think the other thing that is truly needed is to identify strategies on how to 1) redefine school excellence as to include measures of student health and 2) create accountability, professional development and metrics for school administrators that include health. Until our education leaders not only understand, but are trained and evaluated on the simple notion that, broadly speaking, health but be part of our school experience, health and nutrition will continue to be step children of the educational experience in our country.

I actually have some additional thoughts and I’ll post a blog later today.

Thanks for creating the space for conversation Bettina.

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Stacy @School-Bites.com March 7, 2014 at 11:37 pm

Mark, I couldn’t agree more about needed strategies being 1) redefine school excellence as to include measures of student health and 2) create accountability. I know that change doesn’t happen overnight, but as a parent, the rate of change feels painfully slow.

Check out this quote left on my blog the other day: “I’m the Healthy Lifestyles Chair in both my local & Council-level PTAs. I have been work­ing on this effort for the past 5 years and thought I was mak­ing a dif­fer­ence, only to see push back from our new prin­ci­pal this year. He rein­sti­tuted the junk food fundraiser, after a 4-year absence. The school now hands out coupons for junk food when the kids exceed their required read­ing min­utes. Sodas have returned to class­room par­ties even though we banned them last year. I have never expe­ri­enced 5 years of hard work being flushed down the toi­let so quickly!”

We are at the mercy of school district administrators–some of who are completely resistant to the idea of change. I hear these kinds of stories day after day after day. Yes, we need more parents to get involved, but sometimes when I encourage others to join the fight, I know in my heart that they very well may get shut down–and get treated like one of those annoying parents. I can’t tell you how many parents that I know who won’t do it for that very reason.

I will try to find your blog post–would love to hear your additional thoughts!

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Mark March 8, 2014 at 2:11 pm

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