CSPI - Center for Science in the Public Interest

07/13/2020 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 07/13/2020 07:54

USDA Urged to Protect Kids from Digital Food Marketing on Online Learning Platforms

A diverse 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 increasingly used by school children during the COVID-19 pandemic. At least three major food advertisers, McDonald's, Kraft Heinz, and Kellogg have committed to cease advertising on such platforms after the Center for Science in the Public Interest and other health advocates separately raised concerns over ads for Honey Nut Frosted Flakes, Lunchables, and Happy Meals on the online learning platform ABCya.

The civil rights and health advocates are asking that the USDA issue guidance clarifying that local school wellness policies, which typically 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 complete their schoolwork. The USDA requires schools participating in the federal school meals program to develop local school wellness policies aimed at reducing childhood obesity, among other things.

'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, and one of the signatories on both the letters to the companies and the USDA. '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, signatories to the letter to USDA included 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 prominent child health researchers including Jennifer Emond from the C. Everett Koop Institute at Dartmouth and Michele Polacsek from the University of New England, and others.

Last month, CSPI and others had identified a number of 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. While platforms like ABCya do offer advertising-free versions of their sites with paid subscriptions, not everyone can afford such fees, potentially exacerbating racial and socioeconomic disparities, according to CSPI.

'Now that children of all ages have transitioned to online learning, homes have replaced school buildings and tablets and computers have replaced classrooms,' the groups wrote. 'We ask you to commit to supporting children's health by pulling all food and beverage advertising on digital learning platforms and committing to no advertisements of this nature on these platforms in the future. This will help to create a food and beverage advertisement-free learning experience for all children.'

While McDonald's, Kraft Heinz, and Kellogg each maintained that their advertising on the site did not violate the commitments they had made under CFBAI, each agreed to pull the advertising within days of hearing from CSPI. Hearing of the groups' concerns and the companies' decisions, the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), the industry's self-regulatory body, said that it informally asked all of its member companies to avoid advertising on such sites for the rest of 2020.

'We shared CSPI's concerns regarding this issue with the other participants and, in light of the unusual situation we find ourselves in, informally asked them to consider avoiding advertising, for the rest of 2020, on abcya.com and a list of similar-looking sites that we provided to the group' wrote CFBAI vice president Maureen Enright to CSPI.

'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 CSPI policy associate Sara Ribakove. 'Junk food advertising doesn't belong in the classroom, nor does it belong on these online extensions of the classroom. We're 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. Education platforms for children should be free of junk food advertising now and in the future.'