by Marion Nestle
Apr 23 2013

Marketing foods and drinks to kids in school goes on and on

I’ve just been sent a new report on the current status of marketing foods and beverages to children at school: Promoting Consumption at School: Health Threats Associated with Schoolhouse Commercialism.

This reportfrom the National Education Policy Center at University of Colorado, Boulder,  makes sobering reading.

As the press release explains,

In their quest for additional funding, many schools and school districts have allowed corporations to promote the consumption of sweetened beverages and foods of little or no nutritional value in school and in conjunction with school projects…corporations can seem philanthropic when they provide sponsored educational materials…to schools and teachers. These materials can be colorful and engaging, and may align with state and now Common Core standards, but they also present a worldview consistent with that of the sponsor.

If you think that the food companies are making good on their pledges to reduce marketing to kids, this report will make you think again.

Here are a few snippets:

  • Available data suggest that the total amount of money spent on advertising food and beverages to children, both in and out of schools, has decreased over the past few years.  However, any reduction in spending reflects at least in part a shift to less expensive, but more effective, alternative media advertising.
  • Food and beverage companies advertise in schools in multiple ways: (1) appropriation of space on school property, (2) exclusive agreements, (3) sponsorship of school programs, (4) sponsorship of supplementary educational materials, (5) digital marketing, (6) sponsorship of incentive programs, and (7) fundraising.
  • Teaching materials may not mention the sponsor but reflect the sponsor’s views, such as that all beverages count toward hydration.
  • Digital marketing to school kids is a deliberate strategy, as explained by a Coca-Cola executive:  “We’re especially targeting a teen or young adult audience. They’re always on their mobile phones and they spend an inordinate amount of time on the Internet.”
  • Health and wellness initiatives designed to promote physical activity and movement may appear to meet federal guidelines but “are problematic in that they shift the onus for obesity from the corporation’s responsibility to market healthy food to the consumer’s responsibility for making healthy choices.”

The report is a terrific summary of what’s happening with food marketing in schools, loaded with facts, figures, and references.  

In light of the evidence it provides, the report’s recommendation seems grossly understated:

Policymakers should prohibit advertising in schools unless the school provides compelling evidence that their intended advertising program causes no harm to children.

What’s missing from this report is a blueprint for action.

For that, you must go elsewhere, for example, to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Berkeley Media Studies Group, or the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

Do you know of other good sources for taking action on marketing in schools?  Do tell.

  • I couldn’t agree more and schools should not undermine parents with fast food and soda marketing.

  • No list of supports for parents wanting to protect their kids from marketing would be complete without these two:

    Most importantly: Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (who most recently reported on branded food and toys appearing in standardized tests and who has been lobbying to get marketing out of schools for 12 years now.)

    and Common Sense Media, which doesn’t have a direct connection to food marketing but does watch over media use in schools and homes

  • Whether advertised in school or not, look around you, a trip to the grocery store, TV commercials, or just browsing the internet, kids will always be exposed to coca cola and the like. So I guess schools might as well take the money and use it. After all, at the end of the day, it all boils down to how the kids are raised by the parents and of course, their personal choices. I, for one, grew up in a home where there was hardly ever any coke in the ref, except when there would be visitors or maybe a birthday, So I never really liked the thing and prefer juice instead, despite seeing all of these advertisements flung in front of me. I’m not a mom doing the same for my daughter, who at five, still hates any carbonated drink! yay!

  • This type of marketing has been going on for years. I’m from Canada, and back when I was in high school around 1995 era, we had coke machines in most of the hallways in class.

    The machines did have bottle water, but it was more expensive than the coke, so naturally most students drank coke.

    I think that having sponsors for schools is ok, and agree with the report that advertising or deliberate advertising shouldn’t be allowed in schools, unless they (the school ) can prove it doesn’t harm children.

    But the devil is in the details right. Wouldn’t that make it more of a burden on the school to prove this ? How would they prove it ? Who will fund this type of research ?

    They need to get people together, industry folks and school officials, and policy makers to work a system out.

  • Library Spinster

    It used to be worse. I can remember back when at least one Saturday morning cartoon show had characters that were all cereal brand mascots. Back when Super Golden Crisp was called Sugar Crisp.

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  • Thank you for writing about this important topic, and for highlighting the National Education Policy Center’s recent report. Though the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to children is pervasive, it can be difficult to address because of legal constraints. The school setting is one place in which action can be taken to address this issue. ChangeLab Solutions ( has several resources available for law and policymakers interested in taking action, including a model school district policy restricting food and beverage advertising on campus and a forthcoming model state statute prohibiting the same, based on Maine’s 2007 groundbreaking state law.

  • Libby

    California Project Lean has a report called Captive Kids: Selling Obesity at Schools, as well as a school marketing assessment tool.

  • Schools should stick to healthy minds and healthy eating. It doesn’t always make for a pretty profit but that shouldn’t be the focus should it?

  • Our kids are bombarded left and right, front and back, wherever they are with marketing from food companies. It is our job as parents to help them develop the habit of choosing the right foods through our examples.

  • Another great resource is It’s a repository of all kinds of reports and action materials for reducing junk food marketing to kids, not only in schools but also in restaurants and other locations.