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Sabrina Adler's picture

When I was a kid, I didn’t know when companies were trying to sell me something. I’m not unique; most kids don’t understand the intent of advertising. But marketing for unhealthy items – sugary drinks, chips, candy, fast food – can get kids to beg their parents or caregivers for those treats. Then, if a child is denied the treat she has now decided she can’t live without, that begging can turn explosive. And who can blame parents for giving in to those explosions? Despite their best intentions, my parents certainly couldn’t stand their ground every time I publicly pleaded for the newest sugary cereal.

Marketing to kids doesn’t always trigger a temper tantrum, but it does affect what children ask for and choose to eat. And in schoolswhere kids spend much of their timeunhealthy marketing can not only push kids to pick less nutritious foods but also undermine schools’ efforts to help kids eat better.

How does unhealthy marketing affect kids’ health?

Unhealthy marketing is pervasive, and often targets children. Companies’ marketing tactics profoundly affect children’s preferences, purchase requests, and eating behaviors, which can shape a lifetime of habits. Research has shown children under eight are especially vulnerable to marketing, and the Federal Trade Commission has said it is deceptive to advertise to children under six. In one study, children ages four to 12 consumed more of the brands of unhealthy foods they saw advertised, such as sugary cereals and fast foods.

In the school context, unhealthy marketing can send kids contradictory messages about what to eat. Even as cafeterias offer more vegetables, fruits, and whole grains to comply with the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act’s (HHFKA) nutrition standards, the on-campus promotion of familiar unhealthy foods and drinks may discourage kids from trying unfamiliar healthy foods at school or elsewhere. Soda brands on vending machines, fast food logos on playing field scoreboards, and even junk food-sponsored educational materials can weaken schools’ efforts to promote health.

How can schools reduce unhealthy marketing?

Under the HHFKA, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed a rule that would require school districts to address unhealthy marketing in their school wellness policy, a document that outlines the district’s plan to help kids eat well and be physically active. Though the USDA hasn’t yet finalized the rule, it is expected to do so this year.

But school districts like San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) and Milwaukee Public Schools have already used pieces of the proposed regulation to ensure the products and brands marketed in their schools comply with the HHFKA’s nutrition standards.

“Our goal with the updated policy is to address all the things in the school environment that affect the health of students and staff,” said Mark Elkin, coordinator for SFUSD’s Nutrition Education Project. “Addressing marketing is one piece of that effort.”

How can limiting unhealthy marketing help kids be healthy?

When the USDA finalizes its rule, school districts across the country will have to limit marketing of unhealthy foods on campus. It’s important to consider the role such marketing restrictions play in helping kids consume healthy foods and drinks.

1. Addressing marketing can help support healthier school nutrition standards.

Though critics of the HHFKA’s nutrition standards argue increased food waste and concerns that kids are eating less prove that the measures are counterproductive, there is evidence to suggest students like the new offerings. The public also overwhelmingly supports the standards, perhaps recognizing that improving student health is not just about serving healthier foods – it’s also about promoting healthier lifestyles. Reducing unhealthy marketing to children is a key part of that task, and in schools, ensuring the foods promoted are consistent with the foods served can nudge kids in a healthy direction.

“Students can walk off campus and buy the foods and drinks they see advertised,” said Elkin of SFUSD. “The marketing component of the wellness policy reinforces our nutrition education program and helps us promote health comprehensively.”

2. Restricting unhealthy marketing can help reduce health disparities among students.

One recent report shows marketing for unhealthy foods disproportionately targets Latino and African-American youth, who are also hardest hit by the obesity and diabetes crises. Schools that limit unhealthy marketing can help ensure they aren’t contributing to these inequities.

3. Marketing off campus affects student health, too.

Most school districts can’t do anything about local billboards or ads on city buses, but those also affect kids’ choices. In the broader community, where schools lack authority, parents can encourage local government to step in to address marketing to kids.

Marketing affects us all, whether we know it or not. But we are particularly impressionable when we’re young. So when our schools – institutions that truly shape who we become – promote unhealthy foods, they are only making it harder for us to make healthy choices, at school and beyond.

To help kids eat better, we need to think about, and address, all the environmental factors that hinder them. We can’t always stave off temper tantrums, but we can consistently and deliberately give kids the opportunities they need to lead healthy lives.

To learn more about reducing unhealthy marketing to children, check out ChangeLab Solutions’ resources for addressing marketing in schools. Parents and advocates can also consider strategies outlined in our comprehensive toolkit, Marketing Matters

Photos courtesy of Lydia Daniller and USDA Flickr.

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