Newswise — Most students attend schools where they are exposed to fast food and beverages through meals, advertising and promotions, according to a study released Monday.

Ten percent of elementary school and 30 percent of high school cafeterias serve branded fast food weekly, while 19 percent of high schools served these foods daily, according to researchers at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, whose study was published in JAMA Pediatrics.

In addition, the research showed that middle and high schools with higher percentages of low-income students had more exclusive vending beverage contracts than other schools.

Even as the food is being served or offered for sale, companies are also marketing heavily in schools. According to the Federal Trade Commission, food and beverage companies spent $149 million on marketing in schools in 2009.

“It doesn’t seem fair that while parents are trying to teach their kids how to eat healthy, they see ads on TV, billboards, even at school that tell them junk foods are delicious,” said Dr. Rachel Johnson, professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont and a volunteer for the American Heart Association’s Voices for Healthy Kids movement. “Unfortunately, two-thirds of elementary schools sampled in this study provided fast food coupons to students. This sends the wrong message to our kids and our parents by a trusted source of learning.”

First Lady Michelle Obama recently asked major food companies to “step up” and market healthy foods. She advised parents to let companies know their preferences about marketing and healthy foods.

Jennifer Harris at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity tells parents to get as much information as they can about what’s happening in school.

“A lot of times parents don’t realize that marketing in schools is a deliberate strategy,” she said. “There’s no other way they can reach 100 percent of students every day. Their goal is to create lifelong customers and the earlier they can reach a child, the more likely they will be a consumer for life.”

Advocates for healthy eating say the presence of junk food and sugary drinks is pervasive within schools. It’s even used as a reward or positive reinforcement for such things as reading or doing well in school.

There has been some attention to the issue by the government. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 allows the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), for the first time, the opportunity to make recommendations and changes to improve the USDA’s core child nutrition programs. These included the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program. Although the USDA have made a major overhaul to what snack foods and beverages are available in schools with the intent to ensure junk foods are not provided to students as part of the school meal program, there are not similar restrictions on how fast food giants advertise in schools.

The American Heart Association supports measures that restrict food advertising and marketing to children, including allowing only healthy foods to be marketed and advertised to children, discouraging the product placement of food brands in multiple media technologies, eliminating the use of toys in unhealthy kids’ restaurant meals, using licensed characters on only healthy foods, and not allowing unhealthy food and beverage advertising and marketing in schools, on school buses or on educational materials.

The intended effect is to improve children’s dietary behaviors by reducing the consumption of low-nutrient, high-calorie foods, while promoting consumption of healthy food and beverages.

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