A coalition of civil rights, child welfare, and health organizations is calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to protect children from junk-food marketing on online learning platforms being used more often by school children during the covid-19 pandemic.
At least three major food advertisers, McDonald’s, Kraft Heinz, and Kellogg, have said they would stop advertising on these platforms after the Center for Science in the Public Interest and other health advocates raised concerns about ads for Honey Nut Frosted Flakes, Lunchables, and Happy Meals on the online learning platform ABCya.
The groups are asking that the USDA issue guidelines clarifying that local school wellness policies, which usually prohibit marketing of unhealthy foods during the school day and on school grounds, extend to school-issued computers, apps, platforms, or web sites that kids may be required to visit or use to do their schoolwork. The USDA requires schools participating in the federal school meals program to develop local school wellness policies aimed at reducing childhood obesity and other health problems.
“The current public health crisis has highlighted the important role schools play in children’s diets,” said Julia McCarthy, interim deputy director of the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education, and Policy at Teachers College, Columbia University. “We’re asking USDA to help districts limit unhealthy food marketing at a time when so many families are struggling to eat healthfully.”
Besides the Tisch Food Center and CSPI, those signing the letter to USDA include the Center for Digital Democracy, the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, UnidosUS, Color of Change, American Heart Association, Salud America!, and child health researchers including Jennifer Emond from the C. Everett Koop Institute at Dartmouth and Michele Polacsek from the University of New England.
Last month, CSPI and others identified ads for nutritionally poor foods on ABCya.com, an online learning platform used by children in kindergarten through sixth grade. Together, they wrote to the companies asking them not to place food advertisements on online learning platforms, given those platforms’ increased importance during the pandemic. The groups cited the long-term health consequences of young children being exposed to food advertising, and the distraction advertising poses to the learning experience. Although platforms such as ABCya do offer advertising-free versions of their sites with paid subscriptions, not everyone can afford these fees, which could increase racial and socioeconomic disparities, according to CSPI.
While McDonald’s, Kraft Heinz, and Kellogg said that their advertising on the site didn’t violate the commitments they had made under voluntary industry guidelines, each agreed to pull the advertising within days of hearing from CSPI. Learning the groups’ concerns and the companies’ decisions, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative or CFBAI, the industry’s self-regulatory body, said that it had asked its member companies to avoid advertising on educational sites for the rest of 2020.
“There is little doubt that when the next school year starts in the fall, online learning platforms will still be an important part of the educational experience for millions of children,” said Sara Ribakove, policy associate for CSPI. “Junk food advertising doesn’t belong in the classroom, nor does it belong on these online extensions of the classroom.”
Ribakove said the CSPI is glad that McDonald’s, Kraft Heinz, Kellogg, and the CFBAI acknowledge that these ads should come down during the pandemic.
“We encourage them to adopt this as a permanent policy,” she said. “Education platforms for children should be free of junk food advertising now and in the future.”