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Promoting Healthy Foods in Schools

New federal food and beverage marketing guidelines for schools work to steer students toward healthier snacks

A whopping 70 percent of elementary and middle school students are exposed to some kind of food or beverage marketing at their schools.

“Unhealthy food marketing is everywhere. Marketing in schools consists of more than just the traditional types of advertising, like signage and posters,” said Sabrina Adler, senior staff attorney for ChangeLab Solutions, a research, law, and policy organization based in Oakland, California.

In the last year, though, new federal regulations went into effect that help schools encourage students to make healthy food and snack choices.

New USDA rule

In July 2016, the United States Department of Agriculture finalized regulations that limit unhealthy food and beverage marketing in schools. The regulations restrict in-school promotions of foods and beverages to only those that meet the USDA’s Smart Snacks in School nutrition standards.

These standards include science-based nutrition guidelines that require healthier foods — such as more whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruits, vegetables and leaner protein — and discourage unhealthy snacks, such as low-nutrient foods higher in fat, sugar and sodium.

The rule makes sure foods offered and marketed to students during the school day have consistent nutrition standards. New guidelines also make sure schools have updated wellness policies in place that restrict food and beverage marketing to children.

“Marketing can be a confusing topic and the USDA rule only provides bare-bones detail, so it’s important for schools to seek the help they need to draft wellness policy language and then implement it. That help is available, usually at no cost,” said Adler.

“Parents and the broader community can also help by keeping an eye on what’s going on in their local schools and working with their schools to address problems if they see them,” she said.

For information about the new regulations, visit the USDA’s final rule informational page. It outlines requirements for local school wellness policies with an overview of new policies for food and beverage marketing.

What schools can do

March is National Nutrition Month, the annual campaign to reinforce the importance of helping kids and adults make informed, healthy choices about the snacks they grab.

“A growing body of research shows that healthy kids learn better. When students have access to good nutrition and regular physical activity, their academic performance and overall life outcomes improve,” said Stephanie Joyce, MS, RD, Alliance for a Healthier Generation.

Marketing can affect what children choose to eat and purchase. Not surprisingly, young children cannot recognize that marketing is trying to sell them something.

“Young children lack the cognitive ability to understand the persuasive intent of advertising because it’s difficult for them to see things from another person’s perspective,” said Adler. “Even older children, who can better understand advertising’s persuasive intent, may have difficultly seeing its effects, and may struggle to weigh the long-term consequences of consuming the food advertised against short-term rewards.”

Many of the foods and beverages that are heavily marketed to children contribute to poor diet quality, high calorie intake and excess weight gain.

The new USDA rule requires, for the first time, that school wellness policies address new topics such as food and beverage marketing.

How schools implement the new rule will be critical to its success. To comply with the rule and better equip schools to guard against food and beverage marketing, schools can convene wellness councils to begin assessing and revising their existing wellness policies.

“A strong wellness policy contributes to creating a healthy school environment that supports good nutrition, regular physical activity, and overall student health and wellness,” Joyce said.

Visit to learn more about how you can get involved with your school wellness council to create a strong wellness policy that supports student health.

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