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Childhood Obesity Brings About Changes in Marketing/Federal Program Targets Children, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

According to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), the prevalence of overweight American children ages 2-19 years increased from 4% in 1974 to 17.0% in 2011-14.  For adolescents aged 12-19, the number increased from 6.1% to 20.5%. 

There have been numerous recent attempts to stem the tide of rising childhood obesity.  One was U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative which includes, among other things, a call for significant federal funding over 10 years to improve school meals.  Companies including Aramark, Sodexo and Chartwells School Dining Services pledged to cut salt and fat content and offer more whole grains and fresh fruits in the school cafeterias that they manage.  Another initiative is the federally funded Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, designed to bring better grocery stores into low-income areas where fresh foods are hard to come by. 

Child obesity rates are also putting pressure on food manufacturers to revisit their policies of advertising to children.  This includes the practice of using well-recognized cartoon characters on product packaging and even in the shapes of foods for children.  In 2006, 10 food and beverage companies including General Mills, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Kraft Foods banded together to promote the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, which had grown to 18 companies by 2015.  The initiative calls for at least one-half of participating companies’ advertising aimed at children to promote healthier foods or encourage healthy lifestyles.  It also bans the advertisement of food and beverages in elementary schools and promotes the reduction of the use of licensed characters in ads for junk foods.  This effort and others will be regulated by the Council of Better Business Bureaus and its Children’s Advertising Review Unit, which will study companies’ marketing plans and publish the findings.

Examples of the changes include General Mills’ continuing to air ads during children’s programming for Cocoa Puffs cereal (which has 12 grams of sugar per serving), but dropping ads for Trix cereal (which has 13 grams of sugar per serving).  Likewise, Kellogg’s advertises Eggo Waffles (2 grams of sugar) but not Pop-Tarts (17 grams of sugar).

The shift, such as it is, is a small step for food companies, but a significant one.  Walt Disney Co. allows its licensed characters such as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck to be used only to promote children’s food products that meet specific guidelines for calories, fat, saturated fat and sugar.  Disney requires that all of its advertisers, including ads on its child-focused TV channels, radio stations and web sites to comply with a set of nutritional standards.  These standards include cereals with no more than 10 grams of sugar per serving.  In addition, Disney introduced Mickey Check, a logo with Mickey Mouse ears and a check-mark on products that meet criteria regarding calories, saturated fat, sodium and sugar.  Moreover, Disney announced it was cutting sodium amounts by 25% in the 12 million children’s meals it serves annual at its theme parks.

Landmark new programs are popping up in a handful of schools across the country.  In Berkeley, California, for example, organic food proponent and restaurateur Alice Waters founded an organic food program called Edible Schoolyard as part of the curriculum at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School.  Students cultivate organic fruits and vegetables on school property and then harvest the crops and prepare their own lunches.  In Somerville, Massachusetts (a small town outside Boston), schools, restaurants and city government work together to offer children low-fat alternatives and smaller portions, more fresh fruit and repainted crosswalks to encourage residents of all ages to walk to school or work.  Another initiative by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (which is instrumental in curbing tobacco use in the U.S.) spent more than $500 million between 2007 and 2012 on programs that improve access to healthy food, create safe play spaces and fund research into the causes and possible solutions to childhood obesity.

In England and Wales, the British government has banned junk food from school cafeterias, requiring schools to provide at least two portions of fresh fruit and vegetables a day for each child, serve fish at least once per week, limit fried foods to two servings per week and eliminate candy, soda and potato chips completely.  In Mexico, public schools are now required to serve fresh produce and plain drinking water instead of sugar-laden soft drinks.  The National Institute of Public Health reported that as of mid-2015, highly processed foods and sugary soft drinks accounted for 30% of total calories consumed by Mexican children (the Institute maintains that intake of that sort should be 12% or less).



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