Time For A Nutrition Check On School Fundraisers

Time For A Nutrition Check On School Fundraisers

As states and local communities continue to seek new ways of generating revenue to pay for education, schools increasingly are partnering with major brands, particularly those in the food and beverage industry. However, this same industry has been under fire for decades for how it markets to kids—first for advertising specifically targeting hyper impressionable young children, and more recently for promoting unhealthy choices leading to increased rates of childhood obesity.

Food companies fearing legislated restrictions on such marketing came together in 2006 to establish the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI). Members, including Golden Valley-based General Mills, pledged to shift kid-focused advertising toward healthier food and beverages. Specifically, they were to market these products in media whose audience share consists of 35 percent or more children under age 12, as well as other issues such as food marketing in elementary schools.

Even though 40 percent of U.S. television food advertising comes from companies that aren’t members of CFBAI, compliance among the participating members has been good—so good, in fact, that it won the praise of First Lady Michelle Obama, who said at the 2013 White House Convening on Food Marketing to Children, “these new standards are beginning to have an impact, and I commend all of these companies for taking action.”

All good, right? Well, like most things, the devil’s in the details—at least that’s what critics of the self-policing CFBAI charge. They say one giant loophole that all of the food and beverage companies have found is the exclusion of fundraising materials, along with donations, curriculum materials and reward programs.

One of the biggest programs tied to schools is General Mills’ Box Tops for Education, which as of March 2013 had raised an impressive $525 million for schools since its launch in 1996 (other companies that participate in the Box Tops program include Arden Hills-based Land O’ Lakes and Horizon Organics of Longmont, CO.).

Another significant player in school fundraising is Marshall-based Schwan’s, the largest supplier of pizza to schools—to the tune of a 70 percent market share. Its Schwan’s Cares fundraising program offers organizations, including schools and school-related clubs, a 5 to 20 percent commission on sales they generate of Schwan’s frozen food products. The program has raised a total of $8.1 million since 2013.

Critics of the food industry charge that these fundraising programs are clever marketing strategies designed to get into schools and skirt policies restricting advertising. Yet given the participation of schools throughout the country, most states, districts and parent-teacher groups don’t seem to have a problem with the practice; in fact, it appears they encourage it.

Target has long incentivized parents to use their Target Red Card by donating 1 percent of all house-credit spending to a school of one’s choice. And parents also save 5 percent off the top by using the Target Red Card. So a parent can now, a) save money buying products his or her kids will eat, b) earn cash for the kids’ schools, and c) use box tops to further support those schools.

In a study from 2007 to 2012 that included 2,400 elementary schools, 800 middle schools and 800 high schools, roughly 70 percent of elementary and middle school students and 90 percent of high school students were exposed to some type of food commercialism in school, with coupons the most common form. The coupons are typically used to reward students for activities such as reading books or improving grades.

New nutrition standards from the U.S. Department of Agriculture limit the kinds of foods and beverages companies can sell in school. And to be fair, some products being marketed are healthier than others. Box tops, for example, are found on Horizon Organic milk and General Mills’ Cascadian Farm-branded organic products and Green Giant fresh and frozen produce.

But this doesn’t address fundraising marketing, and it’s the opening through which corporations are driving the marketing bus. Is making a contribution to schools based on sales of your product truly an act of charitable giving when it’s tied to purchasing? Regardless of your stance, it’s become an almost obligatory practice for companies, and food and beverage companies aren’t the only ones seeking to penetrate schools—just try to avoid products or initiatives connected in some way to the Susan G. Komen breast cancer foundation.

So, where to draw the line? While practices like selling frozen pizza or candy bars as fundraisers for youth soccer, baseball, school bands, etc., have been going on for decades, those have typically been tied to one specific product at one specific time. The genius of General Mills’ Box Tops for Education is that it operates year-round.

While every school gets to determine how aggressively it wants to market the box tops program, some critics have cited examples of teachers spending classroom time imploring students to get out and collect them.

Of course, what kids ultimately do is up to their parents. The question of marketing to children can be debated from now to eternity, and everything from cereal to Barbie dolls is fodder for criticism or praise.

But the question of what an attorney friend of mine called “shared responsibility” hasn’t been a major factor in the discussion. Shared responsibility as in, if you’re a parent who objects to the various marketing practices of business, then don’t let your child participate. If you easily cave in to the argument that “all the other kids are doing it,” then you really have to examine just how committed you are to your stance. As the famous Pogo quote says, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Glenn Karwoski (g.karwoski@creativepr.com) is founder and managing director of Karwoski & Courage, a marketing communications agency. He also teaches in the graduate school at the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas.