Yvonne Terry-McElrath: Sodas and Food in the Schools

Jan 15, 2014 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Yvonne, I understand you have just done some research on the amount of sodas, junk food, and various products that are promoted in the schools. What brought this about?

Through the Bridging the Gap research program (sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation), we have been collecting data on school policies and practices to improve student health. As part of this, we have been carefully looking at the school nutrition environment since 2007. Last year (in 2013), the USDA published its interim final rule governing school competitive nutrition environments; the rule provides standards for all competitive venue foods and beverages served and sold in schools participating in the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program. The new standards should significantly improve the nutritional quality of foods and beverages sold in school competitive venues; however, they do not address in-school marketing. My co-authors and I were interested in looking at how the school commercialism environment had changed since 2007, and how many students were currently exposed to various forms of commercialism. Essentially, we were interested in seeing how the marketing environment looked given the new efforts to strengthen the foods and beverages actually served to students in US elementary and secondary schools.

2) Let’s start with sodas – How does Pepsi or Coca-Cola get one of those machines onto public land and into a public school? Who gets the profit from the sale of a can of say Mountain dew?

Exclusive beverage contracts (EBCs) or Pouring Rights Contracts are usually put in place at the school district level. The agreements allow a bottling company to have exclusive rights to sell beverages on school campuses, thereby increasing their current sales in a community and helping encourage brand loyalty that will increase future sales. In return, school districts receive a variety of benefits that can range from lump-sum signing bonuses/advances, a percentage of all sales profits after sales reach a certain level, or other incentives such as athletic field score boards. The specific terms of EBCs will vary from district to district depending on the original agreement. Some EBCs have strongly favored the bottler (for example, not allow the school to have a say in what beverages are offered, or strongly penalizing the school for trying to improve the nutritional value of offered items). Other EBCs have been written to allow the schools to have a much stronger say in what is made available to their students.

As to who would get the profit from the sale of your can of Mountain Dew, it all depends on how the contract was written. Early in the school year (before overall sales reached the agreed-upon limit), the profit might go entirely to the bottler. If the agreed-upon sales limit for the year had been met, the agreed-upon percentage of profit would go to the school district (or school, in the unusual event that the EBC was between a bottler and a specific school).

3) About how much money does a school make from one of those machines in a year?

I do not know how much profit per machine is typical. I can tell you that in our research, we found that the average per-student profit reported by administrators who told us their school/school district did have an existing EBC was $1.75 per student in elementary school, $1.54 per student in middle school, and $4.18 per student in high school.

4) Now, let’s talk pizza- I often see various “ chains “ in schools. How does Papa John or whoever get into the school cafeteria? How does this work ? Is there a memorandum of understanding or a contract or what?

I don’t know the full range of agreements that enable fast-food restaurants to sell food items either as part of the school lunch meal or in competitive venues (à la carte cafeteria sales, stores/snack bars/carts, vending machines). In most situations, the agreement would again be made between the food chain and the school district.

5) Junk food- or perhaps bags of peanuts, pretzels, candy bars, potato chips etc. —How do those manufacturers get into the schools? And a more relevant question- Is the school board aware of the peddling of junk food- much with no nutritional value?

Junk food sold in schools can arrive from a wide range of sources ranging from national distributors that stock vending machines to local booster clubs providing items for small school/student stores or snack bars. In most cases, the school district will have policies stating how decisions are made (and by whom) on what foods are made available for sale. Many districts have been very aware that foods of low nutritional value are being sold; however, the income from such sales has been highly desired in this era of financial cut-backs and shortfalls. Hopefully the new USDA interim final rulegoverning school competitive nutrition environments will essentially eliminate junk food sales in schools (if implemented effectively and monitored for compliance). However, the rule does not address junk food marketing. This leaves open an interesting opportunity for companies to continue to extend brand recognition and loyalty efforts, as well as promote less-healthy items. For example, vending machines may be stocked with items meeting the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, yet the visual advertising on the machine may still promote items of low nutritional value.

6) How easy is it for some company to get into a school? Or is the amount of money that the school gets reimbursed the issue?

As we note in the paper, school-based commercialism presents highly desired income for cash-strapped schools and districts. Approximately 44% of total 2011 US education expenditures for public elementary and secondary schools came from state funds,but state education funding cuts have resulted in 35 states having 2012 education funding below 2008 levels. School districts must make up the difference, and one possibility is additional revenue through school-based commercialism. Our results indicated that the most prevalent forms of commercialism (coupons for elementary school, and EBCs for high school) were most frequently found in schools with socioeconomically disadvantaged populations. These schools are in a double bind: they have the strongest need of financial support, but also the highest levels of poor student nutrition and health.

7) Does anyone monitor where the money goes- into books, sports, computers, equipment?

I am unaware of any study that has tracked income from EBCs or vending food contracts into specific types of items. I think the closest we can get is the following: Federal Trade Commission. A Review of Marketing Food to Children and Adolescents: Follow-up Report. Washington, DC: Federal Trade Commission; 2012. http://www.ftc.gov/os/2012/12/121221foodmarketingreport.pdf.

8) Why in your mind is your research important?

As a nation, we have been very unaware of the extent to which our children are exposed to marketing on a daily basis in their schools. Schools present highly desirable marketing environments; students are captive audiences arranged in pre-segmented age groups in relatively uncluttered marketing environments. Students are in schools to learn, and schools and teachers are viewed as trusted role models, lending added credibility to marketing efforts.The majority of foods and beverages marketed in any venue towards children and adolescents are high in calories, sugars, salt, and fat, and are low in essential nutrients – data from our study (although not included in the current paper) indicate that this is certainly true for in-school marketing. This clearly counteracts educational programming aimed at developing good nutritional habits. With the new USDA standards, we now have the opportunity to vastly improve the foods and beverages available to youth in school. We now need to go further and develop clear and enforceable standards on the nutritional content of all foods and beverages marketed to youth in school settings.

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