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Does the Food Industry Influence School Lunches?
By Anika Christ, RD, CISSN, CPT - Life Time Fitness
It’s been estimated that over $10 billion is spent each year on advertising food and beverages to America’s children and youth through television, radio, print and Internet.[i],[ii] Grocery stores will even place products marketed to children at their eye level. The food industry knows that if it can get products into young hands, it’ll likely build some long-term clientele.
Parents can role model by refusing to buy the high-sugar cereal with the cartoon character on the box or simply turn off the television, but what happens when those low-nutrient foods show up at school? How powerful is the food industry’s influence in the school setting?
HOW BRANDS BECOME INTEGRATED IN SCHOOL LUNCHES?
Have you ever wondered how some food brands and specific food items, such as toaster pastries, sugary cereals and flavored milk make their way into the school food system? Especially when these foods are highly correlated with obesity and one in three of our school-aged children today are overweight or obese?
Parents may not know about rebates — the kickbacks school food purchasing agents receive for buying certain products from the food manufacturers. The con tracted school food purchasing agent buys big brand supplies from selected vendors who issue rebates based on a percentage of sales.
This is legal, has been happening for years and accounts for millions of dollars received by purchasing agents each year from powerful food companies. Rebates also translate to higher meal prices and limited food choices because the food service companies are buying products from vendors that pay bigger rebates — rather than those that offer cheaper, locally grown, or higher quality food.[iii]
VENDING, POURING RIGHTS AND SPONSORSHIP?
Vending machines in public schools can influence the diets of school children, evidenced by a recent study that revealed a link between the machines’ contents and the overall student diet. The study showed that students consumed more produce in schools that sold fruits and vegetables in vending machines than those from schools where such choices weren’t offered.[iv] This would actually indicate that school-age children are likely to purchase and consume healthier food items when they are available or convenient. But the vast majority of vending machines are not supplying healthy choices.
Another factor in food industry influence is “pouring rights,” where soft drink companies use a marketing agreement that gives them exclusive and prominent placement in schools.
Food companies will also sponsor nutrition organizations or start their own, arrangements that often give them a reputation for healthfulness they haven’t earned. The American Dietetic Association (nutritional education organization) picked up Hershey’s as a nutrition sponsor in recent years. They may lobby for legislative changes and spend big money doing it. There have been points in history where the funding for dietary research and guidelines has even been paid by the food industry.
WHAT PARENTS CAN DO ABOUT IT?
Continue to be vigilant at home. Serve nutritious meals at home and whole, natural foods to teach your child that vending machines are the exception to real eating.
Review your child’s school menu and visit the cafeteria. Talk to the school food decision makers at your child’s school and ask how you can effect change in the menu.
Connect with parent groups, your school’s teachers and food service workers. Investigate ways to link your child’s school with local farms and encourage a school garden and more food education.
Then write your legislators. Ask them to invest in higher quality and healthier food, to raise nutritional standards and push for further updates to the National School Lunch Program.
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.
[i] Nutrition Action Health Letter. Center for Science in the Public Interest. Jan/Feb 2011.
[ii] Vandewater, W.A., & Cummings, H.M. 2008. Media use and childhood obesity. In Calvert, S.L., & Wilson, B.J., eds. The Handbook of Children, Media, and Development. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
[iii] Investigation Reveals How Food Industry Rebates Thwart Healthy School Meals. Ed Bruske and Co. March 15th, 2011. http://www.theslowcook.com/2011/03/15/how-food-industry-rebates-thwart-healthy-school-food/
[iv] School Vending Machine Choices Affect Kids’ Diet. Today’s Dietitian. January 2011.