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Childrens' health

Commercial Alert vs. USDA: How one non-profit is fighting to eliminate junk food from America's schools

Tuesday, December 06, 2005 by: Jessica Smith
Tags: childrens' health, junk food advertisers, the USDA

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Parents have expectations of what will happen once they drop their child off at school. The two most basic expectations are that their child will learn and that they will be safe while at school, but the once-insular school environment has changed. Advertisers are realizing more and more that children in classrooms make a captive audience – one that cannot change the channel or walk away from an advertisement.

Commercial Alert, a non-profit organization, was founded in 1998 by Ralph Nader and Gary Ruskin to put pressure on companies to drop their pursuit of school children. The organization has successfully encouraged companies to stop gathering marketing data from school children in the classroom, and to stop advertising on in-classroom news programming.

Earlier this year, the organization sent a petition to the USDA. Their request was simple: Enforce the existing laws on serving nutritious food to American school children. In the letter, Commercial Alert wrote, "Junk food is sold in the schools not because it is good for kids or because they need it. It is there because the manufacturers of these products want a captive market of impressionable schoolchildren in which to sell it. That's not reason enough. That's why the surgeon general called upon your agency to enforce its rules that 'prohibit serving foods of minimal nutritional value during mealtimes in school food service areas, including in vending machines.'"

The USDA's response was equally simple. Stanley Garnett, the director of the agency's Child Nutrition Division wrote, "At this time we do not intend to undertake the activities or measures recommended in your petition."

Ruskin, Commercial Alert's co-founder and director, found the USDA's response outrageous, considering the overwhelming evidence that junk food is harming children's health.

"American children are suffering from an epidemic of marketing-related diseases, of which childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes are two, and essentially, we're probably the first culture in the history of humanity to create a culture that is purposely damaging to our own children," he said. "It's an amazing accomplishment, and one that we must change immediately. We're [Commercial Alert] trying to create a culture that nourishes kids, not harms them."

Among Commercial Alert's recommendations were to have schools checked, both by state and federal officials, to make sure they were obeying the non-competition rule (stated above) in their school lunch programs. This was something Surgeon General David Satcher had asked the USDA to enforce back in 2001.

"Time is ticking – what is it, three and a half years or so later? The Bush administration still isn't enforcing this rule, which prohibits the sale of soda pop and foods of minimal nutritional value from school cafeterias at mealtimes,” Ruskin said.

Ruskin sees this non-enforcement as a failure on the national level. Ironically, it's an infiltration of commercial interests in the federal government that has led to the infiltration in local schools. Ruskin says the junk food industry has attacked the World Health Organization's Global Anti-Obesity strategy, instructed the Grocery Manufacturer's Association to "go on the offensive" against public health proponents and even gotten the Chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness to appear at a PR event for a vending machine company.

Time is indeed ticking, and hopefully organizations like Commercial Alert will be able to force junk food and junk food advertisers out of schools and out of children's lives. To learn more about Commercial Alert, or to contribute to the organization, visit www.CommercialAlert.org.

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