Why School Cafeterias Are Dishing Out Fast Food (page 2)

Why School Cafeterias Are Dishing Out Fast Food

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Updated on Oct 21, 2013

“We may be thinking we can make a menu with all these healthy options, but our customers won’t eat it because they’re used to all the branded options,” Lee said. “We can’t compete with those marketing dollars. We don’t have marketing dollars.”

The competition is fierce indeed. Last July, the Federal Trade Commission reported that food companies spent $1.6 billion on marketing to children and teens in 2006. Most of those advertisements were for unhealthy items. A 2005 study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a leading advocacy group on nutrition and health, found that nine out of 10 commercials on Saturday morning television were for fast food, sugary cereals and other low-nutrient foods.

Meal program directors say the brand-name items they serve are nutritious because they’re tweaked to meet the USDA requirements for school meals. The slices of pizza, for example, get a health boost from low-fat cheese and a whole-wheat crust.

Still, parents and health advocates say Chick-Fil-A sandwiches and Domino’s pizza don’t belong in schools.

“Everything that’s marketed in school carries that school’s seal of approval,” said Susan Linn, director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. “Schools are not supporting the health and well being of children if they’re endorsing fast food.”

However, cafeterias are hesitant to give up the branded items because of the revenue they bring in. When a group of parents in Pleasanton asked Castro to stop serving McDonald’s hamburgers in the elementary school cafeteria, he explained that the burgers brought in 25 percent more sales. “Parents can always choose not to have their child buy lunch that day,” he said.

Linn said parents who want to see change should approach their school’s wellness committee, not the cafeteria. All schools are required to have wellness policies addressing nutrition education and physical activity. In many schools, the wellness policies have gotten rid of unhealthy foods like French fries, which would have otherwise stayed in the cafeteria because they drove sales. Strengthening district policies on in-school marketing could do the same for fast food, Linn said.

“The purpose of school is to teach reason, and the purpose of advertising is to subvert reason,” Linn said. “We need to be educating children to choose food on the basis of nutrition and taste, not based on what’s on the box.”

Deborah Lehmann is an editor of School Lunch Talk, a blog about school food. She is currently studying economics and public policy at Brown University.

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