New rules will limit marketing of junk food in schools

Michelle Obama to announce changes to curb advertising of sugary drinks and junk food on campuses during school day

A student at McLean High School in McLean, Va.
Paul Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Even the scoreboards in high school gyms will eventually have to promote healthier diets, under new federal guidelines set to be announced Tuesday.

Moving beyond the lunch line, the rules being disclosed by the White House and Department of Agriculture will limit the marketing of junk food and sugary beverages in schools.

They will phase out the advertising of such products around campuses during the school day, and ensure that other promotions in schools are in line with health standards that already apply to school foods.

That means a scoreboard at a high school football or basketball game eventually won't be allowed to advertise Coca-Cola, for example – but it can advertise Diet Coke or Dasani water, also owned by the Coca-Cola Company. The same goes for the front of a vending machine. Cups, posters and menu boards that promote foods that don't meet the standards will also be phased out.

Ninety percent of such marketing in schools is related to beverages, and many soda companies have already started to change their sales and advertising in schools from sugary sodas and sports drinks to their own healthier products.

The guidelines are part of first lady Michelle Obama's four-year-old Let's Move initiative to combat child obesity. The first lady, along with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, announced the rules at a White House event Tuesday.

"When parents are working hard at home, they need to rest assured that those efforts aren't being undone when kids are out of their control at school," Sam Kass, White House senior nutrition policy adviser, said ahead of the announcement.

The rules will also give more children access to free lunches, and ensure that schools have wellness policies in place.

The guidelines come on the heels of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations that now require foods in the school lunch line to be healthier. They also come ahead of changes to be announced Thursday to requirements for nutrition labels on food products, which will more prominently display the number of calories, amount of added sugar and percentage of whole wheat. The new labels will also more clearly display defined serving sizes.

Rules set to go into effect next school year will also make other foods around school healthier, including choices available in vending machines and separate "a la carte" lines in lunch rooms. Calorie, fat, sugar and sodium limits will have to be met on almost every food and beverage sold during the school day at 100,000 schools. Concessions sold at afterschool sporting events will be exempt.

The healthier food rules have come under fire from conservatives who think the government shouldn't dictate what kids eat – and from some students who don't like the healthier foods.

Aware of the backlash, the USDA is allowing schools to make some of their own decisions on what constitutes marketing, and asking for comments on some options. For example, the program asks for comments on initiatives like Pizza Hut's "Book It" project, which coordinates with schools to reward kids with pizza for reading.

Rules for other school fundraisers, like bake sales and marketing for such events, would be left up to schools or states.

Off-campus fundraisers, such as school benefits held at local fast-food outlets, would still be permitted. But posters advertising the fast food may not be allowed in school hallways. An email to parents – with or without the advertising – would have to suffice. The idea is to market to the parents, not the kids.

The rules also make allowances for major infrastructure costs – a scoreboard advertising Coca-Cola, for example, would not have to be immediately torn down. But the school would have to get one with a healthier message the next time it is replaced.

The beverage industry – led by Coca-Cola Co., Dr. Pepper Snapple Group and PepsiCo – is largely on board with the move. American Beverage Association President Susan Neely said in a statement that aligning signage with the healthier drinks that will be offered in schools is the "logical next step."

"Mrs. Obama's efforts to continue to strengthen school wellness make sense for the well-being of our schoolchildren," Neely said.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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