Food Industry Marketing in Elementary Schools: Implications for School Health Professionals

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Author: Jane Levine
Date: Sept. 1999
From: Journal of School Health(Vol. 69, Issue 7)
Publisher: American School Health Association
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,704 words

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Focusing on schools is a frequently used strategy among food industry marketers for getting their products and messages to children. James U. McNeal,[1] an expert on marketing to children, claims that targeting school children is a good short- and long-term strategy because children have money to spend, influence their families' purchases, and are the consumers of the future. "Cradle-to-grave marketing," he explains, "can be learned by observing the masters, like McDonald's and the Coca-Cola Company."[2]

Meanwhile, childhood obesity has become epidemic. About 25% of children in the United States are overweight or at risk for overweight.[3] No one knows for certain what is causing this epidemic, but it is known that school-aged children consume diets that can lead to chronic disease,[4] that children spend more time in school than at any other activity (including watching television),[5] that most children get information about food and nutrition from schools and teachers,[6] and that the school environment influences eating behavior.[7]

Because food industry marketers use the school environment to influence student consumption of their products,[8] school health professionals should at least be aware of the sorts of food industry products and messages that reach children through the schools. In a joint position statement on school-based nutrition programs and services,[9] the American Dietetic Association, Society for Nutrition Education, and American School Food Service Association claim that "environmental factors support, permit, encourage, or discourage certain eating behaviors." Unfortunately, the elementary school environment may be supporting, permitting, and encouraging preferences for foods high in fat, sodium, and added sugars, thereby putting children at risk for lifelong weight and health problems.


A study of food industry marketing practices in elementary schools[8] found that brand name foods are served, advertised, and promoted in school cafeterias. Products and coupons redeemable for products are distributed in classrooms on holidays and as rewards for achievement; and on trips to fast food outlets. Students and their parents sell food products (mostly candy) to raise funds for their schools, and they collect food product labels and register receipts redeemable for school equipment. Food product advertisements reach students on book covers; in children's magazines and newspapers; on educational posters; by radio, videos, and the Internet; and in the form of teaching materials. Food industry teaching materials and contests cover a range of subject areas and incorporate the sponsor's products or promote the sponsor's brand. These marketing practices run the gamut from obvious propaganda, such as distributing products directly to students or advertising on book covers, to projects with an apparent public service motive, such as providing school equipment in return for product labels or partnering with nutrition professionals to develop educational materials for use in classrooms. The aforementioned findings formed the basis of a survey of nutrition professionals' knowledge of and attitudes toward the food industry's elementary school-based marketing practices.[10]

Consider this example. A huge chart posted in the cafeteria of a Massachusetts elementary school displays McDonald's golden arches and urges students to Pig Out On Books. Each student is represented by a knife, fork, or spoon that progresses along the chart from left to right as he or she reads more books. A sixth-grader explains that students receive free burgers and other items, depending on the number of books read. Using the school's public address system, the principal exhorts students to hand in their reading lists in time to be eligible for the awards.

This company is not alone. Marketers of all sorts of foods high in fat, sodium, and added sugars are targeting elementary school children using all sorts of marketing techniques. Consider the following additional examples.

Fast Foods

High-fat, high-sodium fast foods are offered to students during field trips and school parties at various fast food restaurants. Furthermore, brand-name fast foods are increasingly available in elementary school cafeterias. Approximately 9% of elementary schools participating in the school lunch program offered brand-name fast foods to students during the 1995-1996 school year.[11] The three most popular vendors were Pizza Hut, Domino's Pizza, and Taco Bell.

Brand-name fast foods are not offered in elementary school classrooms, but they are promoted there. For example, Pizza Hut's Book It! reading incentive program encourages students to read by rewarding them with coupons for pizza. McDonald's McSpellIt Club rewards perfect scores on spelling tests with coupons for free hamburgers, cheeseburgers, or Chicken McNuggets. Local McDonald's restaurants provide schools with coupons redeemable for fries and cokes; teachers and administrators use the coupons to reward achievement and good behavior. McDonald's also offers schools a catalogue of nutrition education materials.

Sugared Breakfast Cereals

School breakfasts often include highly-sugared single-serving cereals. Companies' brands are promoted in elementary school classrooms as well. The Kellogg Company developed several nutrition education kits that promote Pop Tarts, Fruit Loops cereal, and similar products. General Mills sponsored teaching materials and computer software about the importance of breakfast, and the company's Big G Box Tops for Education program donates money to schools for each cereal box top collected by the students. The Sugar Association's lesson on dental health teaches students that eating sugary foods is okay if you floss and brush afterward.

Snack Foods

Packaged snack foods are sold by students in school fundraisers organized by outside firms that typically retain 40% to 50% of the revenue. Snack foods are also offered, advertised, and promoted to students. In an elementary school cafeteria, posters and banners advertise Frito Lay products, and bowls of a new snack product are set out for students to sample. In school cafeterias and hallways, students view advertisements for Skittles, 3Musketeers, Starburst `Fruits,' and similar snack foods. The ads are displayed along the bottom edge of Whittle Communications' educational posters, which are positioned so that the advertisements -- not the educational material -- are at students' eye level.

Producers of packaged foods often hire Sampling Corporation of America to help distribute and promote their products in elementary school classrooms. During Sampling's Halloween promotion, students receive Trick or Treat bags displaying industry brand logos and containing safety advice about how to behave on Halloween, along with product samples and coupons for candy, soft drinks, and other snacks.


The food industry gains access to elementary schools by marketing its programs and materials to school food service personnel, administrators, teachers, and other professionals responsible for the welfare and education of students. These professionals are promised increased student participation in the school lunch program and needed funds and materials for their chronically underfunded schools.

The routes used by marketers include exhibits at professional conferences; partnerships with professional associations and government agencies; funding of educational programs; advertisements and articles in professional journals, teacher magazines, and mass media; program descriptions in guides to free teaching materials; web sites; and direct mail and telephone solicitation. Marketing and communications companies may be used to help develop the programs and materials, distribute them, or both.


In its Guidelines for School Health Programs,[7] the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that schools provide healthful foods in cafeterias and vending machines and as classroom snacks. In addition, CDC recommends that schools "discourage the sale of foods high in fat, sodium and added sugars, (eg, candy, fried chips, and soda) on school grounds and as part of fundraising activities" and that schools "discourage teachers from using food for disciplining or rewarding students."

CDC does not address in-school advertising and product promotion, but some school districts do. According to one school nutrition director, the district's policy is that the school superintendent must approve all school-based advertising and promotion. Nevertheless, fast foods and sugared cereals are promoted to students through various education and incentive programs. Clearly, just having a policy is not enough. An effective policy requires the commitment, support, and active involvement of the entire school community: school food service personnel, administrators, teachers, health professionals, and others.

The goal of marketing is to create customers. Thus, food industry marketers strive for an elementary school environment that supports, permits, and encourages consumption of their products. In contrast, the goal of school health professionals is to improve the health and well-being of students -- a goal that requires a school environment that supports, permits, and encourages healthful eating behaviors.

A major barrier to adoption of effective school policies that support and promote a healthful eating environment is the widely-held notion that marketing to elementary school children is an acceptable trade-off for needed funds and materials. But children's health is never an acceptable "trade-off," no matter how severe the budgetary constraints. School health professionals need to actively work for implementation and support of school policies that put children's well-being before business interests.


[1.] McNeal JU. Kids As Customers: A Handbook of Marketing to Children. Lexington, Mass: Lexington Books; 1992.

[2.] McNeal JU. Tapping the three kids' markets. Am Demographics. 1998;20:37-41.

[3.] Troiano RP, Flegal KM. Overweight children and adolescents: description, epidemiology, and demographics. Pediatrics. 1998;101:497-504.

[4.] Stedronsky FM. Child nutrition and health campaign: a member update. J Am Diet Assoc. 1998;98:758-759.

[5.] Hofferth SL. Healthy Environments, Healthy Children: Children in Families. Ann Arbor, Mich: The University of Michigan Institute for Social Research; 1998.

[6.] Gallup Organization. Food, Physical Activity and Fun: What Kids Think. Chicago, Ill: The American Dietetic Association; Washington, DC: International Food Information Council and President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports; 1995.

[7.] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Guidelines for School Health Programs to Promote Lifelong Healthy Eating. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office; 1996. publication MMWR 1996;45(NO. RR-9).

[8.] Levine J. Creating Consumers: How the Food Industry Delivers Its Products and Messages to Elementary School Students and What Nutrition Professionals Know and Think About It. New York, NY: Columbia University; 1998. dissertation.

[9.] Position of ADA, SNE, and ASFSA: School-based nutrition programs and services. J Am Diet Assoc. 1995;95:367-369.

[10.] Levine J, Gussow JD. Nutrition professionals' knowledge of and attitudes toward the food industry's education and marketing programs in elementary schools. JAm Diet Assoc. 1999;99:973-976.

[11.] US General Accounting Office. School Lunch Program: Role and Impacts of Private Food Service Companies (GAO/RCED-96-217). Washington, DC: 1996.

Jane Levine, EdD, Director, Kids Can Make A Difference, P.O. Box 54, Kittery Point, ME 03905; or <>. This manuscript was submitted March 18, 1999, and accepted for publication June 15, 1999.

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A57472307