Most U.S. students are exposed to food or beverage marketing at school

January 13, 2014

ANN ARBOR—Most public elementary, middle and high school students are exposed to some kind of commercial marketing efforts at their schools, designed to increase sales of food and beverages or develop brand recognition and loyalty in order to increase future sales.

Schoolchildren enjoying their lunch

Photo by Thinkstock

That is the key finding of a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research (ISR) and the University of Illinois at Chicago Institute for Health Research and Policy.

The study, published online by JAMA Pediatrics, examines national trends in student in-school exposure to commercially marketed food and beverages, many of which are nutritionally poor.

For the study, ISR researcher Yvonne Terry-McElrath and colleagues analyzed data from 2,445 elementary schools, 816 middle schools, and 802 high schools around the country. School administrators answered a series of questions designed to measure commercial activity related to food and beverages in the schools.

Among the measures:

  • Whether schools or school districts receive incentives, such as cash awards or donations of equipment, supplies, or other donations, once total beverage or food sales from an exclusive vendor exceed a specified amount

  • Whether any company sells food or beverages in vending machines at school

  • How much a school or school district profits from sales of food or beverages

The researchers found that only about 3 percent of elementary school students attended schools with exclusive beverage contracts with a specific vendor in 2012.  But nearly 50 percent of middle school students and nearly 70 percent of high school students attended schools with these exclusive contracts.

Nearly a quarter of middle school students and slightly more than half of high school students attended schools with food vending machines, the study found.  And about 10 percent of elementary students, 18 percent of middle school students and 30 percent of high school students attended schools where fast food was available at least once a week.

“Although there were significant decreases over time in many of the measures we examined, the continuing high prevalence of school-based commercialism supports calls for, at minimum, clear and enforceable standards on the nutritional content of all foods and beverages marketed to youth in school settings,” the authors conclude.

The study was based on data from the Food and Fitness Study conducted at the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Youth, Education, and Society Study, conducted at ISR.  Both studies are part of the larger Bridging the Gap research initiative funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

By Diane Swanbrow

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