School-based food and beverage marketing programs include everything from simple advertisements to branded products, including fast foods, sold on the premises during lunch hours. In a new study that examined commercialism trends between 2007 and 2012, researchers found that the majority of U.S. students, whether they be in elementary, middle, or high school, are exposed to food and beverage marketing. Surprisingly, although previous studies have shown neighborhood density of fast food establishments to be higher for African-Americans in the U.S., the present study found that three types of food commercialism were significantly lower in majority black high schools when compared with predominantly white high schools.

Advertising Dollars

Beginning sometime in the early 1990s, cash-strapped public schools sold exclusive pouring rights contracts to soda companies, which would then provide beverages sold at school sports events as well as on-site stores, snack bars, and soda machines. By 2006, according to the study authors, top food and beverage companies spent nearly $186 million on in-school marketing, most of which involved payments made or items provided through competitive venue contracts. At that time, the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Health and Human Services issued industry self-regulation recommendations for nutrition-related marketing to children. Although industry members took steps to encourage better nutrition, they continued much of their in-school marketing efforts and by 2009, expenditures, though decreased, still amounted to $149 million. Despite the fact that commercial interests have (somewhat) curtailed their campaigns — and these days, their marketing campaigns primarily focus on beverages, both carbonated and noncarbonated — most people are against their presence in schools.

“Across all demographic groups, two-thirds of parents support regulations to limit advertising and sponsorships of unhealthy foods and beverages in schools, a higher level of support than regulations on food marketing to children in any other venue,” wrote Dr. Jennifer L. Harris and Tracy Fox, MPH, Yale University, in an editorial accompanying the study, which appears online in JAMA Pediatrics. “The majority of school officials also support such regulations. Currently, however, most efforts to reduce unhealthy food marketing in schools rely on industry self-regulation...” And while some school districts have addressed commercialism components, few have comprehensive policies. In fact, during 2011, only 11 percent of elementary, 10 percent of middle, and nine percent of all high school districts in the U.S. explicitly prohibited unhealthy food and beverage marketing.

In light of this, a team of colleagues from University of Michigan and University of Illinois chose to investigate the actual practice of food and beverage marketing programs in schools. They surveyed school administrators in public elementary, middle, and high schools about their school's commercial exposure, including exclusive beverage contracts and associated incentives, profits, and advertising; corporate food vending and associated incentives and profits; posters/advertisements for soft drinks, fast food, or candy; use of food coupons as incentives; event sponsorships; and fast food available to students.

Exposure Increases by Grade Level

Schools where fast food was available to students at least once a week in 2012 were attended by 10.2 percent of elementary, 18.3 percent of middle, and 30.1 percent of high school students. In 2012, nearly one out of every 10 middle school students (9.0 percent) and almost one out of five high school students (19.3 percent) attended schools where access to such products occurred daily.

“Although some commercialism measures — especially those related to beverage vending — have shown significant decreases over time, most students at all academic levels continued to attend schools with one or more types of school-based commercialism in 2012,” the authors wrote in their conclusion. In particular, they discovered that overall exposure to school-based commercial programs increased with grade level and did so significantly. For 63.7 percent of elementary school students, the most frequent type of commercialism was food coupons used as incentives.

For secondary students, the type of commercialism most prevalent in schools was exclusive beverage contracts, which were in place in schools attended by half (49.5 percent) of all middle school students and over two-thirds (69.8 percent) of high school students. Exposure to elementary school coupons, as well as middle and high school exclusive beverage contracts, was significantly more likely for students attending schools with middle or low student body socioeconomic status as compared to high socioeconomic status.

“Most U.S. elementary, middle, and high school students attend schools where they are exposed to commercial efforts aimed at obtaining food or beverage sales or developing brand recognition and loyalty for future sales,” wrote the authors. “…the continuing high prevalence of school-based commercialism calls for, at minimum, clear and enforceable standards on the nutritional content of all foods and beverages marketed to youth in school settings.”

Source: McElrath YM, Turner L, Sandoval A, Johnston LD, Chaloupka FJ. Commercialism in US elementary and secondary school nutrition environments: trends from 2007 to 2012. JAMA Pediatr. 2014.