A recent study examining national trends in school nutrition environments has reportedly concluded that “most U.S. elementary, middle and high school students attend schools where they are exposed to commercial efforts aimed at obtaining food or beverage sales or developing brand recognition and loyalty for future sales.”Yvonne Terry-McElrath, et al., “Commercialism in US Elementary and Secondary School Nutrition Environments: Trends from 2007 to 2012,” JAMA Pediatrics, January 2014. Relying on data from two parallel surveys of school administrators—the Food and Fitness study for elementary schools and the Youth, Education and Society study for middle and high schools—that were conducted by the Bridging the Gap program between 2007 and 2012, University of Michigan researchers measured student exposure to (i) “exclusive beverage contracts and associated incentives, profits and advertising”; (ii) “corporate food vending and associated incentives and profits”; (iii) “posters/advertisements for soft drinks, fast food, or candy”; (iv) “use of food coupons as incentives”; (v) “event sponsorships”; and (vi) “fast food available to students.”

Their results purportedly showed that despite a significant decrease in beverage vending, students were still exposed to other forms of food and beverage commercialism at all academic levels. In particular, the researchers reported that nearly two-thirds of elementary school students attended institutions using food coupons in incentive programs, while 49.5 percent of middle school students and 69.8 percent of high school students attended institutions with exclusive beverage contracts. Moreover, they noted, “exposure to elementary school coupons, as well as middle and high school exclusive beverage contracts, was significantly more likely for students attending schools with mid or low (vs high) student body socioeconomic status.” Additional details about Terry-McElrath’s research appear in Issue 449 of this Update.

Meanwhile, a concurrent editorial authored by Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity Director of Marketing Initiatives Jennifer Harris and Food, Nutrition & Policy Consultants President Tracy Fox warns that “the school-based food and beverage marketing described in Terry-McElrath et al. understates the overall picture.” In addition to the branded fast food sold in school cafeterias on a weekly or daily basis, Harris and Fox highlight fundraising initiatives sponsored by food companies, the use of soda and sports drinks logos on donated equipment, and the digital advertising that appears on search engines and educational Websites used in the classroom. They also criticize the industry-backed Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative and similar pledges for failing to close loopholes that currently permit these activities.

“If companies choose to continue marketing unhealthy foods and beverages in schools, states and school districts have significant leeway to restrict advertising to students in public schools,” concludes the editorial, which points to a 2007 Maine law that limits food marketing in all public schools. “Policy makers, school district leaders, and parents should take action to ensure that the entire food and nutrition environment in schools promotes students’ health and well-being.”