When kids are in school, parents expect them to be exposed to subjects like history, science, English and maybe even volleyball. But a study in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that most students also are learning to eat unhealthy foods.
A large number of schools—from elementary through high school—sanction some sort of food industry marketing, such as advertisements, coupons, event sponsorships and sales of brand-name foods. The number and size of schools involved means that the majority of students in the country are exposed to commercialism.
The practice offers extra money to cash-strapped schools. But it also exposes a captive and impressionable young audience to commercials that encourage them to buy the kinds of high-calorie, sugary foods that contribute to poor health, according to both the study and an accompanying editorial.
“To our knowledge, [this] article is the first to quantify food marketing in a national sample of schools and to measure changes over a six-year period,” the editorial noted. “Many of the findings are surprising and disturbing.”
About the study
The study included information garnered from two parallel surveys conducted from 2007 through 2012. In one, done at the University of Illinois at Chicago, researchers collected data from a nationally representative sample of elementary school administrators. The other, conducted at the University of Michigan, gathered similar data from middle school and high school administrators.
Among the findings:
• Food coupons were the most common type of advertisement at elementary schools. Nearly 64 percent of students at this level received coupons for pizza, sugary drinks or fast food products—often as rewards for learning.
• Almost 50 percent of middle school students and nearly 70 percent of high school students attended schools that had exclusive contracts with beverage companies in 2012. Those numbers actually represent a decrease from 2007, when they were 67.4 percent and 74.5 percent, respectively.
• Fast food was available to students at least once a week in schools attended by about 10 percent of elementary students, nearly 20 percent of middle school students and 30 percent of high school students in 2012.
Schools are an attractive target for food marketers for a number of reasons, the authors wrote. Schools and teachers are seen as trusted role models and sources of learning, all of which lends credibility to marketing. The school-based commercialism increases direct sales of products and increases brand recognition, which has been linked to brand loyalty.
The take-home message
Children already consume too many calories—including empty calories from food and beverages high in sugar and fat—which increases their risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer, noted the editorial.
“School property should be a place where messages to young people strengthen their bodies as well as their minds,” its authors wrote, and they urged parents and school leaders to push for changes in marketing to students.