Mar. 28, 2005 – An unlikely figure greets first grader Taylor Schoenbeck and his classmates once a month as they leave Valley Park Elementary School in suburban St. Louis County. A representative of the Papa Johnâ€™s pizza franchise, dressed up as a piece of pizza named "Mr. Slice," sends the children home with one last reminder that tonight is the schoolâ€™s "Pizza Night."
Mr. Slice is one among thousands of manifestations of Corporate America on American public school campuses, gaining much-needed funding for school programs by providing a guaranteed market for advertising and product sales.
When he arrives home, Taylor shows his father, Tom, a flier his teacher gave him earlier in the day, announcing pizza night. If Tom takes his son to the local Papa Johnâ€™s franchise, the school receives 20 percent of the revenues generated by the joint advertising effort. And if Taylorâ€™s class buys the most pizzas out of every class in the school they are rewarded with a free pizza party.
Schoenbeck said he does not mind helping out the schools, but he is opposed to this type of corporate advertising. "The kids are there to learn," he said, "not to be taught about products. My child is not a living billboard."
Schoenbeck also is concerned about what the companies are peddling. "These companies serve greasy fattening entrees, which merely contribute to the general obesity of our society," he said. "It is one thing for our children to hear or see these advertisements on TV or radio, but when they come home from school promoting corporate logos given to them by their own teachers, it almost certainly contributes to their long-term attitudes of acceptability towards these organizations."
The marketing of fast food to children comes when there is increasing public concern over child obesity.
Parents and students across the country share Schoenbeckâ€™s fears about the commercialization of public schools. The Papa Johnâ€™s program is just one example of an ongoing and ever more pervasive trend in food company marketing inside schools.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventionâ€™s School Health Policies and Programs Study 2000, fully 20 percent of schools surveyed offer brand name fast foods to students. Additionally, Channel One, a daily television news program containing two minutes of ads -- a portion of which are for soda, fast food and junk food companies -- is shown to 40 percent of all junior high and high school students in the US. And as schools search desperately to find funding, corporate sponsorship and exclusive beverage deals have become an integral part of school funding.
The marketing of fast food and other junk food to children comes at a time when there is increasing public concern over child obesity and its potential health risks. A study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 1999 to 2002 estimated 16 percent, or more than nine million youth, between the ages of 6 and 19 are overweight, marking a three-fold increase since 1980.
The fast food and other industries interested in marketing to children, have found a number of ways to penetrate school campuses.
Public health organizations are responding. Earlier this year, the Center for Science in The Public Interest (CSPI), a health advocacy group, released new guidelines for responsible food marketing to children partially based on a survey the group conducted last year showing the prevalence of junk food at schools. The guidelines call on fast food companies to stop using curricula, fundraising activities, educational incentives, or other scholastics-based sales marketing of junk food. The guidelines would prohibit programs like those promoted by Pizza Hut and Papa Johnâ€™s, which use fast food to reward academic achievement.
CSPI has sent letters to food companies asking them to voluntarily comply with the guidelines. "Parents are outgunned by food companies and the toys, cartoon characters, celebrities, and psychological munition that food marketers have at their disposal," said CSPI nutrition policy director Margo Wootan in a press statement about the guidelines. "Parents try to get their kids to eat bananas, broccoli, and whole wheat bread, but those messages get drowned out by marketing for French fries, cookies, and candy. What we're really asking is that marketers act responsibly and not urge kids to eat foods that could harm their health."
CSPI conducted a study in which 120 volunteers examined the contents of 1,420 vending machines at 251 schools in 24 states. Of the snack foods sold, 80 percent of vending slots were for candy, chips, cookies, snack cakes or pastries. Of the drinks available, 70 percent of slots were given to sugary drinks such as soda.
The fast food and other industries interested in marketing to children, have found a number of ways to penetrate school campuses in addition to programs like the one at Valley Park Elementary. The most obvious way has been to set up retail stands inside the schools.
Corporate sponsorship deals and exclusive beverage contracts have been bringing in much needed funds for schools over the last decade.
Schoenbeck worries about potential corporate intrusion in the schools. "They could essentially skew the whole system by putting their point of view in [schools]," he said.
Not everyone sees Papa Johnâ€™s "pizza night" as detrimental. Tammy Reel, a secretary at Valley Park Middle School who helped to put together the pizza program before the 2003-2004 school year considers the concerns overblown. "Eating pizza once a month isn't that big of a deal," she said.
The school receives about fifty dollars each month from the pizza night, according to Reel, and Papa Johnâ€™s gives the school free pizza coupons to reward student achievement.
"We thought that was nice to award them with a pizza for doing something good," Reel said. "It's a way not to cut into the school budget for incentive programs."
Despite the obvious economic benefits to fast food companies and school administrations alike, Wootan is optimistic that companies will follow the guidelines proposed by CSPI. She points to Kraft Foods, which last year ceased advertising unhealthy products to children.
"There is a lot of pressure on fast food companies on how they market to children," Wootan said. "Many current marketing practices are becoming less and less acceptable."
Others are less optimistic. "Unfortunately, [voluntary] guidelines usually don't work when dealing with business or politics," said Jacqueline Domac, a health teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District co-chair of the California State Task Force on Youth and Workplace Wellness School Nutrition & Physical Activity Committee.
"Unless policy is passed and implemented, fast food companies will mostly likely continue marketing to students," she said. "Itâ€™s far too lucrative of a sales strategy for them to willingly walk away from. Schools are a breeding ground for long term brand loyalty."
Students lose one school day a year to Channel Oneâ€™s advertisements.
The Center for Consumer Freedom, an advocacy group for the restaurant industry and a vocal critic of CSPI, thinks school administrators and parents should be the ones to decide whether fast food companies should be in the schools, instead of guidelines written by CSPI.
Mindus said the focus should be on physical education. "There is a lot of hype and hysteria about obesity," said Dan Mindus, a senior analyst for the Center for Consumer Freedom. "Itâ€™s easy to blame fast food."
Dr. Samuel Klein, who directs the Center for Human Nutrition at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, stopped short of saying fast food is the sole cause of obesity, though he did note that a correlation exists between body weight, fast food consumption and the increase in consumption with increased fast food marketing.
"Itâ€™s not one problem," he said. "I think a lot of it has to do with change of lifestyle."
Two Different Approaches
Domac led a group of students in persuading the school district to pass a resolution banning junk food and carbonated soft drinks at all of LAâ€™s 713 campuses starting last year.
Domac said that many parts of the school district have seen increased sales since replacing candy bars and other high fat items with baked chips, granola bars and other healthy snacks in the vending machines.
Domacâ€™s group is not the first to successfully fight junk food or commercial intrusion in the schools. Activists across the country have fought to ban everything from junk food and soda vending machines to Channel One.
On the other hand, many schools have taken the opposite approach. One example is Westside High School in Omaha. The school boasts its own Pizza Hut/convenience store, and has nicknamed it "The Warrior Hut" after the schoolâ€™s mascot.
"I really believe â€¦ that we need to provide real world environments for our kids and teach them to make good decisions," said Diane Zipay, director of nutrition services at Westside Community Schools.
Additionally, the school has an exclusive beverage deal with Pepsi, which, according to Zipay, has brought in more than $800,000 over seven years for the high school. Noting the school has experienced budget cuts, she said, "That money has gone for really, really valuable things."
The Warrior Hut is owned and operated by the school. Students have access to typical convenience store items such as batteries, lotions and candy along with a limited Pizza Hut menu that features personal pan pizzas, breadsticks and dessert sticks, all bought from Pizza Hut and cooked by school employees. Since the school operates on a modular schedule in which students can leave campus at various times during the day, Zipay said the Warrior Hut provides an incentive for students to stay at school.
Nevertheless, this convenience has a downside, according to one teacher who would only speak with The NewStandard on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussions from the administration.
"There are a lot of teachers who have mixed feelings that itâ€™s probably not good for the health of kids," the teacher said, adding that she notices some students eating dessert and breadsticks when they enter school in the morning.
Corporate sponsorship deals and exclusive beverage contracts have been bringing in much needed funds for schools over the last decade. But some critics say the amount of money brought in by these deals is only a small portion of district budgets that typically reach tens of millions of dollars.
In 1993, a district in Colorado Springs is thought to have started this nationwide trend when it displayed Burger King ads in the hallways and on school buses. In 1996, the district began working with Dan DeRose, president of DD Marketing, Inc., and saw its corporate-derived revenues triple within a year by selling its student body as a captive audience by providing opportunities to advertise in a broad range of formats and forums.
The Colorado-based DD Marketing went on to become one of the top marketing firms for schools interested in raising funds through corporate sponsorship and beverage deals. In the eleven years since its inception, DD Marketing has generated nearly $400 million for schools and currently represents more than 200 educational institutions in negotiating exclusive supply contracts.
A quick look at the companyâ€™s website shows a scrolling screen of its accomplishments. One example is a 10-year, $5.37 million exclusive beverage contract with 7-Up for the Kansas City School District in Kansas City, Kansas.
"Weâ€™ve been able to increase revenue" for the schools, said Kirk Kochenberger, a member of DD Marketingâ€™s corporate sponsorship department. "Itâ€™s a win-win."
The majority of deals brokered through DD Marketing are with the major soda brands Pepsi and Coca-Cola and 7Up. DD Marketing receives a commission on the sales produced by the deals.
Responding to health food advocates, Kochenberger said, "Weâ€™re definitely not trying to push sugar water on kids. Kids are going to be responsible for their own choices especially when starting high school." Kochenberger also said that principals have the final control over what is sold in their schoolsâ€™ machines, regardless of contracts with the district.
Critics of exclusive beverage deals contend there is pressure on teachers and school administrators to push these products onto kids to the exclusion of healthier alternatives.
DD Marketing also orchestrates corporate sponsorship deals between schools and local franchises and businesses. "Itâ€™s not overwhelming -- a sign in the gym, an ad in the program," Kochenberger told TNS.
Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a nonprofit group fighting against the commercialization of schools, believes the solution to school funding shortages lies elsewhere. Increased government funding could help schools avoid these deals and still provide schools with technology they otherwise would lack, he said.
Ruskin said advertising in the schools precedes DD Marketingâ€™s involvement, and he points to Channel One as one of the main culprits.
He called Channel One an "egregious form of corporate welfare" that delivers advertising to a captive audience of eight million children using taxpayersâ€™ money.
Channel One, which began broadcasting to schools in 1989, is a 12 to 13-minute news program hosted by youth broadcasters with two minutes of commercials. In exchange for free televisions, the program must be shown daily in participating schools at a reasonable volume level. Ruskin and other critics point out that students lose one school day a year to Channel Oneâ€™s advertisements and one full school week to Channel One programming.
"Itâ€™s forced watching of advertising in schools," Ruskin said.
Channel One sees itself differently. "If the news is going to be unbiased -- not from the government -- itâ€™s going to have ads," said Jeff Ballabon, spokesperson for Primedia, the parent company of Channel One.
As for Channel One being a pioneer in advertising in schools, Ballabon said, "schools have always had a relationship" with local businesses in the community.
Ballabon acknowledges there are junk food and fast food advertisements on Channel One, but he contends that many of the commercials do not mention their products. Instead, they are promoting one cause or another. The critics, he said, "are simply anti-corporate."
Ken McNatt is definitely anti-Channel One. The student activist from Pennsylvania started a National Campaign Against Channel One website. He lists an almost endless parade of reasons he believes people should oppose Channel One.
"The arguments I make against the program include the quality of programming, or lack thereof; the quality of journalism, or lack thereof; and the use of schools to promote the interests of Channel One and its advertisers," McNatt told TNS, noting Channel One spent 40 percent of its newscast time in the first 25 episodes this year on sports and weather coverage, not the hard news the producers promise.
"[There is an] implicit endorsement by schools and teachers of anything that is advertised on the program," McNatt said, "because the schools approved of showing Channel One and teachers show it." He added, "I could go on and on."
In response to the unhealthy food served up to children in some schools, farmers and school districts across the country have been working together to provide healthier alternatives. "With the whole national obesity epidemic coming to the forefrontâ€¦ folks are starting to look at us," said Marion Kalb, director of the Farm to School Program, which links local farmers to school districts in an effort to provide schools with local vegetables and fruits.
The program grew out of efforts in 1996 in Santa Monica, California and in the panhandle region of Florida. Local farmers were struggling to find markets for their products and parents were looking for healthier foods for their children. Through the Farm to School program, farmers and schools have come together in a variety of arrangements to get locally grown produce in the schools. The program has grown to include 400 schools in 23 states, Kalb said.
"A lot of the fast food is about money," she said, referring to the financial incentive for schools to allow fast food onto their campuses. But Kalb believes that schools can bring in revenues by selling healthy food to students as well. "If we can get more kids into the school food program then we can get more money into the schools," she said.