Michelle Obama Pushing Ban on Junk Food Advertising in Schools

No brand names on vending machines, trashcans, screen savers

First lady Michelle Obama / AP
February 25, 2014

First lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced on Tuesday the introduction of "school wellness standards" that will dictate how food can be marketed in cafeterias and on school grounds and heavily restrict snacks deemed "unhealthy" by the federal government.

The proposed guidelines would ban brand names, such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi, from vending machines, on cups, book covers, trashcans, and computer screen savers.

"The idea here is simple—our classrooms should be healthy places where kids aren't bombarded with ads for junk food," Obama 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 proposal is in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) "Smart Snacks in Schools" regulation, mandated by the first lady’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010.

"As part of local school wellness policies, the proposed guidelines would ensure that foods and beverages marketed to children in schools are consistent with the recently-released Smart Snacks in School standards," the USDA said. "Ensuring that unhealthy food is not marketed to children is one of the first lady's top priorities; that is why it is so important for schools to reinforce the importance of healthy choices and eliminate marketing of unhealthy products."

The Food and Nutrition Service told the Washington Free Beacon that the rules would be wide-ranging and apply to all areas where students are present up to 30 minutes after the school day ends.

The proposal would only allow advertising for foods that meet the snack standards, which ban snacks that exceed 200 calories, regular sodas, and nearly all other drinks except for "plain water," "unflavored low fat milk," and 100 percent fruit juice. High school students can have carbonated beverages that have fewer than 60 calories.

The snack standards are set to go into effect during the 2014-2015 school year.

"Marketing would be permissible for all beverages that meet the Smart Snacks Nutrition standards, which includes some diet sodas," an official said. "The marketing standards would apply to items such as posters, fliers, and other printed materials, prizes, or other premium items given to students to promote products, cups used for beverage dispensing and various equipment such as the exterior of vending machines, menu boards, coolers, trash cans, and other food service equipment."

"The standards would apply to all areas of the property under the jurisdiction of the school that are accessible to students during the school day," the official added. "Examples of areas affected include the cafeteria, classrooms, hallways, gymnasiums, parking lots, and all other areas of the campus that students occupy before school, during the school day, and for 30 minutes after the school day."

The administration used "Change Lab Solutions," an organization that provides research and writes laws to encourage "environmental change strategies," as a model for the proposed rules.

The group’s draft law for "limiting food marketing at schools" bans brand names, trademarks, and logos of any food product that does not meet the government’s new healthy school lunch standards.

Change Lab Solutions encourages states to prohibit marketing on everything from uniforms, book covers, marquees, to computer screen savers. The group also encouraged states to go around the First Amendment to gain more government authority on school advertising.

"Although the First Amendment restricts what government can do about advertising in public places, a well-crafted law prohibiting all marketing activities or the marketing of certain types of products at schools would likely survive a First Amendment challenge," it said. "Because of the unique educational mission of schools, the First Amendment leaves a lot of leeway for the government to regulate the types of commercial messages that are allowed on school grounds."

Vilsack said the marketing rules would ensure that school environments "promote healthy choices."

"USDA is committed to working closely with students, parents, school stakeholders, and the food and beverage industries to implement the new guidelines and make the healthy choice, the easy choice for America's young people," he said.