Pizza is shown for sale in the cafeteria at a middle school in San Diego, California March 7, 2011. Photo by Mike Blake/Re...

The many mixed messages schools send students on healthy eating

In schools, where companies enjoy a captive audience, food marketing is widespread — on pizza packaging, football game scoreboards and vending machines, for example. But the messages on healthy eating in the classroom may conflict with the marketing and food schools serve to students, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

When it comes to healthy food and diet, where a student goes to school often determines the messages they get.

Researchers analyzed survey responses from people working for more than 600 school districts throughout the country. Their central question asked if differences exist between districts in the kinds of food marketing students see. Are students receiving mixed messages on healthy eating? Did school districts promote fruits and vegetables in health class, for example, but allow soft drink companies to set up vending machines in the cafeteria?

They found that urban schools were significantly more likely to ban ads for soft drinks on school grounds than rural schools. School districts where most students weren’t white also were more likely to report these bans.

This report offers one of the first windows into messages school districts send students about healthy diets, said Caitlin Merlo, a health scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the report’s lead author. In future studies, Merlo said she wants to dig into the reasons why some districts were better about coordinating healthy messages and marketing than others.

Food companies spent $149 million to market products in schools in 2009, according to the Federal Trade Commission’s 2012 report that examined food marketing to youth.

That figure represented 8 percent of the $1.79 billion that food companies spent that year to reach children and teens.

“Food marketing works in terms of affecting preference, and schools are one place where students spend six to eight hours of a day in a school setting for a majority of the year,” Merlo said.

Nationwide, federal campaigns are underway to prevent chronic diseases, such as diabetes or heart disease. “Food marketing in the school setting,” Merlo said, “is one piece of the puzzle.”

Editor’s Note: This report was updated for clarity.