By James Limbach

September 25, 2009
Despite rising public concern over childhood obesity, food companies, through an industry-funded self-regulatory group, have proposed a set of "principles" by which the companies can use a variety of approaches to market junk food to children in schools.

The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest is calling on the industry group to go back to the chalkboard and consider whether Ronald McDonald truly belongs in the classroom. Also, a bill introduced in Congress would require the Department of Education to conduct a thorough assessment of school-based food marketing.

The industry document at issue is a "Fact Sheet on the Elementary School Advertising Principles" released by the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which is funded by industry and administered by the Council of Better Business Bureaus.

Members of the initiative include Burger King, Coca-Cola, General Mills, Hershey Company, McDonald's, Campbell Soup Company, and other major food companies.

The fact sheet begins with an introduction stating that the member "companies agree that they will not advertise any food or beverage in elementary schools," and lists coupons, food samples, posters, and book covers among several other forms of prohibited advertising.

That sounds promising, says CSPI, but the document then spends much of the following ten pages describing what food marketing it does not include, such as marketing on vending machine exteriors, label-collection programs, branded display racks, tray liners that promote food sold in schools, and menu boards, many of the techniques that are used most widely in schools.

The self-regulatory plan also allows companies to sponsor curricula, other educational materials, and public service announcements. "Spokescharacters" like Ronald McDonald or Tony the Tiger are allowed, as is the sale -- by students -- of low-nutrition foods in fundraisers. It even omits the most common form of in-school marketing: the sale of the food itself.

Although some of the CFBAI-participating companies have pledged to address school food sales through an agreement with the Clinton Foundation and American Heart Association, the majority of companies have not.

In a letter to Elaine Kolish, the initiative's director, CSPI also expressed concern that the guidelines only cover elementary schools (K-6). At the very least, the group says, the guidelines should cover middle schools, where the average 6th grader is 11 years old.

"These principles are a sham, written more to protect the commercial needs of food marketers than the health of children," said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo G. Wootan. "It's bad enough that junk food is still available for kids to buy in schools. But who wants their son or daughter to be enlisted in an unpaid, drone army actually selling junk food?"

CSPI cites Pizza Hut's Book It! Program as an example of an in-school marketing program that is allowed under the principles outlined in the industry fact sheet, since the Pizza Hut logo is small compared with other text on the materials. Logo aside, it is the prospect of free Pizza Hut pizza that really captures children's attention. (Yum! Brands [Pizza Hut's parent company], Chuck E. Cheese's, Topps Candy, and a number of other major marketers to children have not joined the self-regulatory program.)

"Schools should teach the joys of reading," said Wootan. "Programs like Pizza Hut's turn reading into a commercial proposition that, unfortunately, ends up promoting obesity and disease in children." Experts warn against using food as a reward, which can instill in children lifetime habits of rewarding or comforting themselves with unhealthy food behaviors.

CSPI says that without a substantial expansion of the marketing principles the food industry's self-regulatory system won't adequately protect kids' health.

The legislation sponsored by Representatives Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) and Todd Platt (R-PA), would require the U.S. Department of Education, along with the Division of Adolescent and School Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to assess the nutritional quality of foods available in schools and the forms of food marketing in schools.

The bill is supported by a broad coalition of national and state health groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Diabetes Association, the American Heart Association, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and the Trust for America's Health.