Healthy kids: White House proposes school ban on ads for junk food

Many schools advertise sugary drinks and other junk foods, particularly on vending machines and scoreboards and gyms, a practice that would be stopped under the proposed rules.

Charles Dharapak/AP
First lady Michelle Obama announces proposed guidelines for local school wellness policies in the East Room at the White House, Tuesday, Feb. 25.

Under new rules proposed by the White House Tuesday, marketing for junk food and sugary drinks will no longer be allowed in schools.

New USDA regulations have already ensured that food sold in schools will be far healthier. And starting this fall, food sold outside of regular school lunches – in vending machines or à la carte lines – will also have to adhere to new standards limiting fat, sodium, sugar, and calorie content.

But many schools still advertise sugary drinks and other junk foods – particularly on vending machines and scoreboards and gyms – a practice that would be stopped under the rules proposed Tuesday.

“The idea here is simple – our classrooms should be healthy places where kids aren’t bombarded with ads for junk food,” said First Lady Michelle Obama in a statement. The first lady has made school nutrition and childhood obesity a focus of her work. “Because when parents are working hard to teach their kids healthy habits at home, their work shouldn’t be undone by unhealthy messages at school.”

The White House also announced the expansion of a pilot program to make it easier for children to receive free breakfast and lunch at school. The program, which was originally piloted in 11 states but will be expanded nationwide beginning in July, allows schools in which 40 percent or more of students meet free- and reduced-cost-lunch requirements to offer free meals to all their students.

According to the White House, that means that more than 22,000 schools across the country will be eligible to offer free breakfast and lunch to all their students – a change designed in part to simplify paperwork and red tape for those schools.

“This could have amazing implications,” says Marlene Schwartz, deputy director for the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University. “If a lot of districts do that, and start having lunch available without having to worry about money, it takes the stigma away. But what I also would love to see happen is that the school district then owns the lunch program – it’s part of the school experience and day and is there for everyone.”

Having the program be universal, and freeing schools from having to worry about the myriad rules that accompanied the old program, could mean not only that more students get served, says Dr. Schwartz, but also that the schools can begin to integrate their cafeteria and a healthy-meal program more directly into their education mission.

“The best way to learn about nutrition is to eat it,” she says.

Under the new standards proposed Tuesday, schools would be responsible for setting their own wellness policies, but they would need to conform with the proposed guidelines.

The fate of some programs, like Pizza Hut’s “Book It” initiative, in which students are rewarded with pizza for reading, is uncertain, and the USDA has asked for comments. Schools would have some ability to determine what constitutes marketing, particularly around things like bake sales, and schools would have some time to make big infrastructure changes, like replacing a scoreboard that advertises Coca-Cola or Pepsi.

But ultimately, all such advertising in a school – including vending machines, posters, cups, menu boards, and scoreboards – would have to be phased out. Advertisements for healthier drinks – like Coca-Cola’s Dasani water – would be allowed.

“There’s a fair amount of marketing in schools because there’s never really been a standard,” says Tracy Fox, a food consultant in Washington. “It’s pretty pervasive.”

Ms. Fox says she likes that the new guidelines, in addition to bringing food marketing in line with the new nutrition standards, will require districts to make information about their wellness policies available to the public on a regular basis. “It encourages schools to reach out to parents and others and encourage them to participate in the process,” she says. “It will be on the schools to make sure people are aware of the local wellness policy.”

The guidelines announced Tuesday were called for under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which mandated that the USDA set guidelines for what must be included in local school wellness policies. The USDA has also launched a website to serve as a resource for schools in creating those policies. Since nutrition guidelines were revised, experts say they’ve seen the quality of school meals steadily improve, and more food-service directors get on board with making food healthier.

“We’ve seen really big changes,” says Schwartz, noting that both the amount and variety of fruits and vegetables offered in schools have increased, and many schools are opening salad bars.

“It’s a challenge,” she says. “It’s harder to make healthy food taste good than to make unhealthy food taste good…. But there are examples all around the country where they’ve done this and made great changes.”  

This week marks the fourth anniversary of Mrs. Obama's Let's Move initiative to combat childhood obesity, and in her remarks announcing the new wellness guidelines Tuesday, the first lady called attention to how much has changed in that time.

"Back when we first launched Let's Move this whole healthy eating thing was still kind of a novelty. Back then, if a school grew a garden or installed a salad bar, if a fast food restaurant started selling a healthy item or a business offered employees incentives to exercise more, that was a big deal," Mrs. Obama said, in remarks she gave in the East Room of the White House. "And today, more than 6,500 schools are bringing physical activity back into the classrooms. And because of the child nutrition bill we passed back in 2010, today nearly 90 percent of our schools – 90 percent of them – have already implemented new school lunch standards.... Parents have a right to expect that during the school day, their kids will have food that meets basic nutrition standards, and they’ll have a chance to maybe move around a little bit while they’re there, too."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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