WASHINGTON – It’s not just about what America’s kids are getting in the lunch line.
The Obama administration is moving to phase out junk food advertising on football scoreboards and elsewhere on school grounds — part of a broad effort to combat child obesity and create what Michelle Obama calls “a new norm” for today’s schoolchildren and future generations.
“This new approach to eating and activity is not just a fad,” Mrs. Obama said Tuesday as she described the proposed rules at the White House.
Promotion of sugary drinks and junk foods around campuses during the school day would be phased out under the Agriculture Department rules, which are intended to ensure that marketing is brought in line with health standards that already apply to food served by public schools.
That means a scoreboard at a high school football or basketball game eventually wouldn’t be allowed to advertise Coca-Cola, for example, though it could advertise Diet Coke or Dasani water, also owned by Coca-Cola Co. Same with the front of a vending machine. Cups, posters and menu boards that promote foods that don’t meet federal standards would also be phased out.
Ninety-three per cent of such marketing in schools is related to beverages. And many soda companies already have started to transition their sales and advertising in schools from sugary sodas and sports drinks to other products they produce. Companies are spending $149 million a year on marketing to kids in schools, according to the Agriculture Department.
The announcement at the White House was part of a week of events marking the fourth anniversary of the first lady’s “Let’s Move” program. Mrs. Obama also travelled to Miami Tuesday to announce that the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and the National Recreation and Park Association will serve more fruits and vegetables at after-school programs and ensure kids get 30-60 minutes of physical activity a day. NBC’s “Parks and Recreation” star Amy Poehler introduced the first lady.
The proposed school marketing rules come on the heels of federal regulations that now require food in school lunch lines to be more healthful than in the past.
Separate rules, which are to go into effect in September, will cover other food around school as well, including in vending machines and “a la carte” lines in the lunch room. Calorie, fat, sugar and sodium limits now will have to be met on almost every food and beverage sold during the school day, as mandated by a 2010 child nutrition law.
Even though diet sodas would be allowed in high schools under the proposed rules announced Tuesday, the rules don’t address the question raised by some as to whether those drinks are actually healthful alternatives to sugary soda.
Some healthful-food rules have come under fire from conservatives who say the government shouldn’t dictate what kids eat — and from some students who don’t like the new alternatives.
Mrs. Obama defended herself against critics, saying that “I didn’t create this issue.” She said kids will eventually get used to the changes.
“That’s our job as parents, to hold steady through the whining,” she said.
Aware of the backlash, the Agriculture Department is allowing schools to make some of their own decisions on what constitutes marketing and is asking for comments on some options. For example, the proposal asks for comments on initiatives like Pizza Hut’s “Book It” program, which co-ordinates with schools to reward kids with pizza for reading.
Rules for other school fundraisers, like bake sales and marketing for those events, would be left up to schools or states.
Off-campus fundraisers, like an event at a local fast-food outlet that benefits a school, still would be permitted. But posters advertising the fast food may not be allowed in school hallways. An email to parents — with or without the advertising — would have to suffice. The idea is to market to the parents, not the kids.
The rules also make allowances for major infrastructure costs — that scoreboard advertising Coca-Cola, for example, wouldn’t have to be immediately torn down. But the school would have to get one with a different message or product the next time it was replaced.
Schools that don’t want to comply could leave the National School Lunch Program, which allows schools to collect government reimbursements for free and low-cost lunches for needy students in exchange for following certain standards. Very few schools choose to give up those government dollars, though.
The beverage industry — led by Coca-Cola Co., Dr. Pepper Snapple Group and PepsiCo — is on board with the new rules. American Beverage Association President and CEO Susan Neely said in a statement that aligning signage with the more healthful drinks that will be offered in schools is the “logical next step.”
The public will have 60 days to comment on the proposed rules, which also would allow more children access to free lunches and ensure that schools have wellness policies in place.
The 2010 child nutrition law expanded food programs for hungry students. The rules being proposed Tuesday would increase that even further by allowing the highest-poverty schools to serve lunch and breakfast to all students for free, with the cost shared between the federal government and the schools. According to the Agriculture Department and the White House, that initiative would allow 9 million children in 22,000 schools to receive free lunches.
The department already has tested the program in 11 states.
Associated Press writer Kelli Kennedy reported from Miami.
Follow Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mcjalonick