Complimentary to other changes focusing on improving foods served in schools, First Lady Michelle Obama and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack on Tuesday announced changes to school wellness plans that would limit in-school marketing of foods deemed unhealthy. The proposed changes would require that foods marketed in schools comply with school nutrition guidelines.
The changes to wellness policies fall under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which mandated that the USDA set guidelines for what needed to be included in local school wellness policies.
According to USDA, wellness policies must also address goals for nutrition education and physical activity and inform parents about content of the policy and implementation. Schools must also periodically assess policy progress and share updates as appropriate.
Part of the policy also addresses school snacking requirements as laid out in the Smart Snacks in School standards, released in 2013.
"The idea here is simple—our classrooms should be healthy places where kids aren't bombarded with ads for junk food," the First Lady said. "When parents are working hard to teach their kids healthy habits at home, their work shouldn't be undone by unhealthy messages at school."
The White House said the decision builds on comments from the First Lady at the White House Summit on Food Marketing to Children last fall, where Mrs. Obama called on the country to ensure children's health was not undermined by marketing of unhealthy food.
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"The food marketing and local wellness standards proposed today support better health for our kids and echo the good work already taking place at home and in schools across the country," explained Vilsack. "The new standards ensure that schools remain a safe place where kids can learn and where the school environment promotes healthy choices."
Vilsack said companies spend $149 million a year in marketing to children in school settings; 93% of it is marketing beverages.
Implementation and free lunch program
To help schools with the implementation of the school wellness policies, the USDA launched a new "School Nutrition Environment and Wellness Resources" website, which includes sample wellness policy language for school districts and a dedicated page of resources for food marketing practices on the school campus.
These new resources will complement a second announcement which highlights the nationwide expansion of a successful program that was piloted in 11 states with the goal of ensuring children who are in need of nutritious meals are receiving them.
Beginning July 1, 2014, more than 22,000 schools across the country—which serve primarily low-income students—will be eligible to serve healthy free lunches and breakfasts to all students. This will help as many as 9 million American children eat healthy meals at school, especially breakfast, which can have profound impacts on educational achievement, the White House said.
According to advocacy group the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the financial impact on schools of limiting food marketing should be minimal; they cite a 2012 study by Public Citizen, which found that two-thirds of schools with advertising got no income at all from it, and less than half of one percent of schools earned more than $50,000 from school marketing.
Under the new rule, schools could still allow food and beverage marketing for healthy foods.
"Local wellness policies are an important and low-cost approach for school districts to implement the national school lunch and Smart Snack guidelines, as well as address other school foods and physical activity," CSPI nutrition policy director Margo Wootan commented.