Guest Post: Building Back Better

Beyond the Curve: Dr. Peter Lurie's COVID-19 Blog

A digital learning game called "Henry and the sugar bugs" displaying a kid with a toothbrush; there's a Frosted Flakes ad on the side
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By CSPI policy associate Sara Ribakove. See all Beyond the Curve posts.

The slogan “Build Back Better” is often associated with the disaster recovery efforts following the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, which claimed nearly a quarter of a million lives. It proposes that post-disaster recovery plans should not merely prioritize returning to the status quo, but instead also focus on underlying conditions to ensure prevention of future disasters.

This notion resonates particularly well with efforts to mitigate COVID-19. The coronavirus has changed nearly every part of daily life. Across the United States, voting is different, protesting is different, working is different, and buying groceries is different. Some things are actually better: the birds are back and pollution is down. These major deviations from “normal life” provide each of us with an opportunity to examine our routines and challenge the pre-COVID-19 status quo. We should all ask ourselves, “What could be better than it was before? How can we leverage this moment to improve on the status quo?” 

Schools are one institution that has seen sudden and unprecedented changes. Earlier this year, they transitioned rapidly to remote learning. Homes quickly replaced school buildings, while dining room tables and laptops replaced desks and classrooms. Teachers rose to the occasion (as they always do!) and adapted quickly. Digital education platforms became a critical component of the virtual classroom. 

These digital education platforms, to which students gain access on school-issued laptops and devices, are not new to the school setting. They are an important part of how children learn and are already a mainstay of our education system. However, with the surge in usage of these programs come concerns around increased exposure to junk food marketing. 

Approximately 60% of virtual educational resources are ad-supported or have unclear policies around advertising. And we know marketing affects children’s food and beverage choices, purchase requests, diets, and health. Children are uniquely vulnerable to food and beverage marketing; they are often unable to comprehend either advertising’s persuasive intent or the long-term health consequences of their food choices.

It’s noteworthy that educational platforms like ABCya often offer advertising-free versions of their sites with paid subscriptions. However, not everyone can afford such fees, potentially leading to differential exposure to junk food advertisements by socioeconomic status which may exacerbate socioeconomic and racial health disparities

CSPI, alongside partner organizations, has already begun to address these concerns. In June, we reached out to McDonald’s, Kraft Heinz, and Kellogg to express our concerns and ask them to stop advertising on these platforms. 

All three, each of which participates in the industry’s self-regulatory body, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), agreed to pull their ads from ABCya for the rest of the year, citing the extraordinary circumstances associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. McDonald’s and Kraft Heinz took it a step further, with McDonald’s agreeing to pull their ads from other similar sites during upcoming Happy Meal campaigns and Kraft Heinz agreeing to pull their ads from similar sites for the rest of the year. Responding to CSPI’s concerns and the companies’ decisions, CFBAI said that it had informally asked all 19 of its member companies to avoid advertising on these sites for the rest of the year. In an email to CSPI, CFBAI indicated that “the group responded positively and the companies are taking steps to meet this request expeditiously.”

While this is a good first step, this commitment only covers companies that voluntarily participate in CFBAI. Moreover, the commitment is temporary, lasting only through the end of the year. Here’s a great opportunity for the companies to “Build Back Better.” 

Interestingly, there’s a pretty clear-cut role for the United States Department of Agriculture here. USDA already has school wellness policies that require schools to exclude food advertising from school grounds. As CSPI and other advocates recommend in a letter sent today, in order to adjust to the ever-evolving pandemic and the increased emphasis on remote learning, USDA should issue guidance clarifying that these policies also apply to school-issued computer equipment, all remote learning digital resources that serve as curriculum material, and digital material that aligns with standardized educational criteria. 

Together, advocates, parents, food and beverage companies, CFBAI, education platforms, USDA, and others can help our country “Build Back Better,” by creating an online learning environment permanently devoid of junk food advertising.

Contact Info: 

Contact us at cspinews[at]cspinet.org with questions, ideas, or suggested topics.