When schools closed in response to COVID-19, educational platforms, websites and applications became a daily part of students’ lives. Homes replaced school buildings, and computers replaced classrooms.
Maine recently secured internet access for students facing connectivity issues so all students can learn remotely during the coronavirus pandemic. Many Maine school districts are adopting hybrid models this school year. In Portland, about 10 percent of students are expected to learn remotely full time. Depending on the school, the rest may attend classes in person for several days a week while learning online the others.
Distance learning can protect students from the immediate threat of COVID-19. But students’ increased use of digital learning tools could exacerbate another, long-term public health problem: diet-related disease.
The COVID-19 crisis has made clear that our diets are putting us in danger. Patients with obesity, diabetes and hypertension are more vulnerable to the virus, meaning that healthy eating should be a top priority. Yet for millions of low-income students no longer able to easily access school meals, healthy eating just got a lot harder.
Prompted by parents’ concerns, we recently reviewed popular educational platforms. What we found: bright banner ads for sugary cereals, promotions pushing packages of processed-meat snacks and flashy photos of fast foods like McDonald’s. In a particularly telling example, an ad for Kellogg’s Honey Nut Frosted Flakes appeared next to “Henry and the Sugar Bugs,” an online story “about a young boy learning to brush his teeth.”
Food marketing not only undermines educational messages but also can create inequitable learning environments and exacerbate racial, ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in health. ABCya.com, the platform where the ad appeared, allows users who pay extra to avoid ads. The cost of educational subscriptions can be prohibitive for lower-income families and for families struggling financially during the COVID-19 pandemic. At a time when childhood food insecurity has increased five-fold, and millions of low-income students may go hungry, unhealthy food marketing on digital learning devices is especially egregious.
Food marketing harms learning and health, which is why, by law, educational environments are supposed to be free from the marketing of unhealthy food. In schools, advertised products are supposed to meet the same nutrition standards required of food sold in schools. The idea is that if a product’s nutritional quality is so poor that companies can’t sell it in schools, they ought not to be able to advertise it on the sides of vending machines, scoreboards, buses and basketball uniforms, and now – increasingly, in the digital spaces children visit under the direction of their teachers.
A recent study found that schools are ill-equipped to deal with digital food marketing. Nearly 97 percent of middle schools across the country have no policy on digital food or beverage marketing. More than half do not block ads on school-owned devices.
Schools can take steps to help safeguard students and restrict harmful food and beverage marketing. But, ultimately, system-wide solutions are needed to protect our children. That’s why we have asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help schools address the rapidly evolving tactics of the tech industry.
The food industry has acknowledged that advertising on educational platforms during COVID-19 is unacceptable. Three major food companies – Kellogg’s, McDonald’s and Kraft Heinz—agreed to remove advertisements from ABCya.com. McDonald’s and Kraft Heinz pledged to pull ads from similar sites through the end of the year, and the industry’s self-regulatory group, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, asked its 19 members to consider avoiding advertising on educational sites for the rest of 2020.
Pausing food marketing on educational platforms is a notable step for these companies and the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. But school districts need more than a temporary promise from the select companies that are voluntary members of the self-regulatory group – they need clear, comprehensive and sustained USDA action to mitigate some of the longer-term effects of school closures on student health.
The current public health crisis has highlighted the important role schools play in students’ diets. Let’s take this opportunity to ensure that even in this time of distance learning, schools promote healthy, lifelong behaviors.
— Michele Polacsek & Julia McCarthy
Michele Polacsek is director of the Center for Excellence in Public Health at the University of New England in Portland and author of the digital food marketing study cited in the op-ed.
Julia McCarthy is interim deputy director of the Laurie M. Tisch Center for Food, Education and Policy at Teachers College, Columbia University.
View the article on the Portland Press Herald website.