Food Industry Marketing in Elementary Schools: Implications for School Health Professionals

By Levine, Jane | Journal of School Health, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Food Industry Marketing in Elementary Schools: Implications for School Health Professionals


Levine, Jane, Journal of School Health


Focusing on schools is a frequently used strategy among food industry marketers for getting their products and messages to children. James U. McNeal,[1] an expert on marketing to children, claims that targeting school children is a good short- and long-term strategy because children have money to spend, influence their families' purchases, and are the consumers of the future. "Cradle-to-grave marketing," he explains, "can be learned by observing the masters, like McDonald's and the Coca-Cola Company."[2]

Meanwhile, childhood obesity has become epidemic. About 25% of children in the United States are overweight or at risk for overweight.[3] No one knows for certain what is causing this epidemic, but it is known that school-aged children consume diets that can lead to chronic disease,[4] that children spend more time in school than at any other activity (including watching television),[5] that most children get information about food and nutrition from schools and teachers,[6] and that the school environment influences eating behavior.[7]

Because food industry marketers use the school environment to influence student consumption of their products,[8] school health professionals should at least be aware of the sorts of food industry products and messages that reach children through the schools. In a joint position statement on school-based nutrition programs and services,[9] the American Dietetic Association, Society for Nutrition Education, and American School Food Service Association claim that "environmental factors support, permit, encourage, or discourage certain eating behaviors." Unfortunately, the elementary school environment may be supporting, permitting, and encouraging preferences for foods high in fat, sodium, and added sugars, thereby putting children at risk for lifelong weight and health problems.

FOOD INDUSTRY MARKETING PRACTICES

A study of food industry marketing practices in elementary schools[8] found that brand name foods are served, advertised, and promoted in school cafeterias. Products and coupons redeemable for products are distributed in classrooms on holidays and as rewards for achievement; and on trips to fast food outlets. Students and their parents sell food products (mostly candy) to raise funds for their schools, and they collect food product labels and register receipts redeemable for school equipment. Food product advertisements reach students on book covers; in children's magazines and newspapers; on educational posters; by radio, videos, and the Internet; and in the form of teaching materials. Food industry teaching materials and contests cover a range of subject areas and incorporate the sponsor's products or promote the sponsor's brand. These marketing practices run the gamut from obvious propaganda, such as distributing products directly to students or advertising on book covers, to projects with an apparent public service motive, such as providing school equipment in return for product labels or partnering with nutrition professionals to develop educational materials for use in classrooms. The aforementioned findings formed the basis of a survey of nutrition professionals' knowledge of and attitudes toward the food industry's elementary school-based marketing practices.[10]

Consider this example. A huge chart posted in the cafeteria of a Massachusetts elementary school displays McDonald's golden arches and urges students to Pig Out On Books. Each student is represented by a knife, fork, or spoon that progresses along the chart from left to right as he or she reads more books. A sixth-grader explains that students receive free burgers and other items, depending on the number of books read. Using the school's public address system, the principal exhorts students to hand in their reading lists in time to be eligible for the awards.

This company is not alone. Marketers of all sorts of foods high in fat, sodium, and added sugars are targeting elementary school children using all sorts of marketing techniques. …

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