When First Lady Michelle Obama announced in 2010 that she'd be tackling skyrocketing childhood obesity rates in the U.S., the attacks were swift and shrill. Naysayers accused her of creating a "nanny state" and of starving student athletes who'd pass out on football fields if their dense, empty calories were replaced with fruits and vegetables.
Fast forward four years and over 90% of schools across the country are meeting updated nutrition standards for school meals, and we’re starting to see early signs that childhood obesity rates may be declining among certain age groups and in some locations. This progress reflects the work of many people, but Mrs. Obama's decision to focus on helping kids grow up healthy has clearly created a shift in the ways we talk about everything from school breakfasts and lunches to what's for sale in school vending machines. And, that talk has led to action.
Last year, parents gained significant ground in the war against junk food when more than 250,000 people wrote to the USDA in support of national nutrition guidelines for snacks sold in school vending machines and à la carte lines. These updated Smart Snacks standards will go into effect July 1st of this year.
This is a major victory, but parents can’t rest yet. Right now, food and beverage companies spend $149 million a year on marketing to kids in schools, but only 9% of public high school districts prohibit such marketing. And children of color get an increased dose of junk ads at school. Parents are often surprised to find that ads appear in all kind of overt and subtle ways throughout the school environment, including ads on vending machines, in school publications, and on school sponsored websites, as well as via free samples and branded fundraisers.
So while the snacks and drinks sold in schools are getting healthier, the marketing hasn’t. Talk about mixed messages!
The First Lady, like most moms, knows how confusing mixed messages can be to children and teens. That’s why she and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack proposed a simple standard for food and beverage advertising in schools: If a food or drink can’t be sold in school, it shouldn’t be marketed there either.
At a White House event in February, the USDA announced a 60-day comment period for a proposal that would require schools to address food marketing and advertising in their local wellness polices. This new proposal would help eliminate these harmful messages from what should be one of the safest environments for kids.
I, for one, am all in. And you can still have a say. So let’s get those junk food ads out of curricula and textbooks; off of websites designed for use in schools; and pulled from in-school radio or television stations like Channel One.
First Lady Michelle Obama and moms and dads across the country know that kids deserve the best. We all need to lift our voices to let USDA know that junk food advertising does not belong in our children’s schools! Click here to tell the USDA if you agree.
Monifa Bandele is a Senior Campaign Director at MomsRising.org