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Manel Kappagoda's picture

vending-08-004In today’s MomsRising blog carnival on junk-free schools, you’ll be reading about all kinds of ways to make sure snacks and other foods sold in schools are better for our kids.

But we could be completely undermining those efforts without even realizing it – if we don’t start addressing another critical aspect of our kids’ experience at school.

As you’ve probably read, the USDA has just proposed a new nationwide “Smart Snacks in School” rule: for the first time ever, foods sold anywhere on school property – not just as part of the school meal program – will be required to meet nutrition standards set by the federal government.

Right now parents, school officials, health experts, and others are all debating the new regulations. There’s lots of enthusiasm around this effort to strengthen the standards for these so-called competitive foods, snacks and other foods that “compete” with the school meal program. Even First Lady Michelle Obama has made healthier competitive foods a priority in her Let’s Move campaign to reverse childhood obesity trends.

But no matter what kind of standards the federal government sets for these foods, our schools are sending a mixed message to our kids if they continue to allow advertising for junk foods and sugary drinks on campus.

In many schools, our kids are bombarded by ads for unhealthy foods and soft drinks – in hallways and cafeterias, in classrooms and on sports scoreboards, even in teaching materials and school publications.  According to a report from the Federal Trade Commission, food and beverage companies spent nearly $149 million marketing products of concern in schools between 2006 and 2009 – mostly for soft drinks, and largely as part of contracts that allow the companies to, among other things, display ads for their products on the front of vending machines.520461162_7fba153f04(1)

What can we, as parents, do about this? Plenty. For one thing, we can work with school officials and our neighbors to push for policies limiting food and beverage ads on school grounds. Advocates and policymakers in Maine went even further than that: Maine was the first state in this country to pass a statewide law prohibiting ads for certain unhealthy foods and beverages in schools. With the right political champions, we can help build momentum in our own states to follow its lead. 

A recent workshop convened by the Institute of Medicine looked at the challenges and opportunities for change in food marketing to kids. A new report covers the highlights, including presentations by Samantha Graff of ChangeLab Solutions and MomsRising campaign director Monifa Bandele. The workshop summary captures a range of possibilities, from broad policy changes to grassroots communications initiatives.

William Dietz, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity, was clear at the IOM workshop about the importance of parent-led efforts in building momentum for change in food marketing practices. “Children are society’s most vulnerable population, and those who care the most about them need to be mobilized,” he said, adding that “parents will need to be on the front lines” of the effort.

Changing what’s inside our kids’ school vending machines is important, of course. But we also need to pay attention to what’s ON those vending machines – and on our school scoreboards, book covers, and classroom walls, too.

For more about ways to reduce soda consumption in your school or community, see

Vending machine photo by Lydia Daniller for ChangeLab Solutions. Scoreboard photo by Flickr (buschap).

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