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Parents, experts decry junk food marketing in schools

Vending Machine Calories_AP_Dec 30 2013.jpg

 (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

One day, when Casey Hinds’ eldest daughter was in kindergarten, she came home in tears.  

At school, the faculty was encouraging students to turn in box tops from processed food products as part of their latest fundraiser/marketing program.  Hinds’ daughter was upset because she didn’t have any box tops to turn in.

“I explained we don’t have that kind of food, because we have a history of diabetes, and we’re trying to promote healthy habits,” Hinds, a health volunteer and stay-at-home mother of two, told FoxNews.com.  

Since then, Hinds has fought to keep advertisements and commercialization out of her two daughters’ schools as much as possible – a process she said has been difficult.

“[Chick-fil-A] even brought their mascot to my daughter’s school and put a sticker on her backpack,” Hinds, 43, said. “I can turn the TV off at home, but I lose that option when I send them to school.”

Hinds believes this kind of commercialization creates a confusing message for her daughters, especially since she works hard to instill healthy eating habits in them.  And according to a new study, Hinds’ daughters aren’t the only ones receiving mixed signals.

New research published in JAMA Pediatrics revealed that most children and teenagers in the United States go to schools that have partnerships with food and drink companies.  In exchange for selling or advertising their products in schools, corporations will often give school districts a certain percentage of their sales or donate much-needed supplies. Companies benefit by increasing brand recognition and brand loyalty among young customers.

According to the study, many of these companies sell potentially fattening products, such as sugary, sweetened beverages and processed snack foods.

The study’s authors argued that these food advertisements counteract recent efforts by government officials and school administrators to teach children about healthy eating.  

“We want to encourage healthy consumption and healthy nutrition patterns," lead author Yvonne Terry-McElrath, from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, told Reuters Health.  "I think at the very least, we need to have some good strong policies that say, ‘Hey, you really can't market stuff that's not healthful for the kids.’"

Hinds agrees, arguing that schools need to send a consistent message to their students.

“One of the things I’ve advocated for is strong wellness polices,” Hinds said. “If we’re teaching kids about health and nutrition, you want the messages you’re getting from their school to support that.  We can put a lot of time and money and effort into health education, but if you have these ads, that money goes to waste.”

Hinds also noted that while schools may partner with companies to raise funds, they’re actually creating a bigger financial burden for children in the future.

“We have to look at the long-term bigger picture,” Hinds said. “If we’re allowing our schools to market junk food, that’s going to increase those health costs down the road.  It’s about making those connections between school leaders. It seems like free money, but there is a major cost to it down the road in regards to health care.”

Reuters contributed to this article.