Public health and childhood obesity advocates offered nearly universal positive feedback on proposed guidelines unveiled at the White House on Tuesday by First Lady Michelle Obama and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that would limit food and beverage marketing in schools.
The proposal is the next step in the effort to improve the school food environment. Schools already have implemented strong nutritional standards for meals and will soon implement stronger standards for snacks and drinks. Restrictions for food and beverage marketing will provide a boost to those efforts, ensuring that industry will no longer be able to market products in schools that students no longer can purchase in schools, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said.
Schools will then send a consistent message when it comes to eating healthy.
“I think we can all agree that our classrooms should be healthy places where our kids aren’t bombarded with ads for junk food,” Obama said. “And these guidelines are part of a broader effort to inspire food companies to rethink how they market food to kids in general.”
The childhood obesity movement applauded the White House announcement. Dr. Rachel Johnson, professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont and a spokesperson for the American Heart Association, said restricting food marketing in schools will provide support to parents who are trying to help their kids build healthy habits.
In particular, she pointed to coupons given to students by companies such as Pizza Hut and Sonic when the youngsters complete academic endeavors such as reading a book. Children often receive these coupons without their parents knowing about them.
“No parent wants a food fight. When children come home from school with a coupon for pizza or doughnuts as a reward, it's hard to say no,” she said. “Sometimes we give in, but it doesn’t seem fair that while parents are trying teach their kids how to eat healthy, children sometimes get a different message at school. The First Lady is giving an opportunity for parents to speak up and be a voice for healthy kids.”
The White House announcement came on the same day that new research was unveiled showing that obesity prevalence among 2 to 5 year olds dropped by about 40 percent in eight years. That news made the announcement from the White House all the more exciting, said Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
“After decades of seemingly endless bad news about obesity, our collective efforts over the last several years show that we as a nation are finally moving in the right direction,” Lavizzo-Mourey said. “Of course we can't stop now. We must redouble our efforts, and continue to focus on those children and families most at risk for obesity.”
Restricting food marketing in schools will help ensure young people develop healthy habits from a young age, advocates argued.
“Given the high rates of childhood obesity and children’s poor diets, it doesn’t make sense to advertise and market unhealthy food to children at all, much less in schools,” said Margo Wootan from the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Parents know from experience, and studies show, that food marketing affects kids’ food preferences, food choices and health.”
In addition to the food marketing announcement, the White House also introduced a new policy that school districts that serve communities in which 40 percent or more of students qualify for free meals may now offer free breakfast and lunch to the entire school. Parents should now take action to support the proposals, Johnson said.
“Each of us should take this opportunity to share our own experiences with food marketing in schools and help establish a new norm for healthy eating environments,” she said. “Schools can help parents make the healthy choice the easy choice.”