Michelle Obama to unveil food marketing limits for schools
By: Tarini Parti
February 24, 2014 11:58 PM EST
First lady Michelle Obama will unveil a proposal Tuesday that would ban marketing junk food and sodas in schools — an unusually aggressive position for the administration that could draw the ire of school districts, food companies and conservatives.
Schools would no longer be able to house vending machines that sport images of their flagship sodas, have posters promoting unhealthy food and drinks or use cups in cafeterias that market high-calorie beverages, among other forms of promotion, according to administration officials.
The proposal — part of an updated school wellness policy crafted by the Department of Agriculture — would require marketing of all food and drinks to fall in line with the same healthier standards that are expected to be required of foods sold during the 2014-15 school year. Both sets of measures, which go beyond the new school lunch and breakfast requirements, stem from the 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.
The announcement comes as food companies reformulate their products to fit the new standards, and school districts prepare to implement another round of food-related regulations.
“You can’t market what you can’t sell,” said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The new rule “will make sure that schools can’t promote unhealthy meals in schools that undermine the new standards or nutrition education.”
“It’s going to be interesting to see how the industry responds to this. It’s going to be much harder for them to make the case against this because they already can’t sell those products.”
The updated standards for foods sold in schools, which have yet to be finalized, would require snack foods, including those in vending machines, to meet at least one of the following requirements: be a whole-grain-rich grain product; have as the main ingredient a fruit, a vegetable, a dairy product or a protein food; be a combination of food that contains at least one-quarter of a cup of fruits or vegetables; or contain 10 percent of the Daily Value of nutrients like calcium, vitamin D or dietary fiber.
The foods also would have to meet calorie, fat, sodium and sugar limits.
For beverages, elementary and middle schools are mostly limited to water, unflavored and low-fat milk, or 100 percent fruit and vegetable juice. High school students will be able to buy a certain amount of low- or no-calorie beverages.
Rather than fighting the changes, the American Beverage Association is applauding the first lady for what it says are “common-sense efforts to strengthen school wellness policies, including support for aligning food and beverage signage in schools to reflect what is allowed under [USDA] regulations.”
“Mrs. Obama’s efforts to continue to strengthen school wellness make sense for the well-being of our schoolchildren,” said ABA President and CEO Susan Neely.
She noted that the beverage industry already has moved forward with voluntary guidelines that have “cut the beverage calories in schools nationwide by 90 percent, and set the stage for the USDA’s regulations that take effect in schools this July. Now, we look forward to working with the USDA on their proposed rule to align food and beverage signage in schools with the new regulations as the next logical next step.”
But the food industry will need more details before making final judgments, said Beth Johnson, principal for Food Directions, a food industry lobbying firm.
The new marketing restrictions add to all the regulations associated with school foods that the industry is already dealing with, which will play a role in how they view the proposal, Johnson said.
Although the industry has, overall, been supportive of creating a healthier environment in schools, there are a lot of details that will need to be worked out, she said. The biggest unknown is that the standards for foods that can be sold, which would also be the standards for the products that can be marketed, have not yet been finalized.
“Defining what marketing is has also been a big question,” Johnson said. “That will continue to be a subject of great debate.
“This is potentially the first time the government has set limits on marketing in schools. What kind of precedent does this set?”
Some school districts have already expressed concerns about a potential loss in revenue due to limits on the types of food they could sell a la carte and in vending machines.
Now the proposal on food marketing could refuel those concerns.
“I question the need for regulation here,” said Noelle Ellerson, associate executive director for policy and advocacy for The School Superintendents Association.
“It seems awfully redundant because food companies were already reformulating the products they would sell in schools. A school district should ultimately have the right to refusal if they don’t want a vending machine marketing some products.”
The first lady’s announcement Tuesday is part of the new initiatives the administration is unveiling to mark the fourth anniversary of Let’s Move!