Why is Big Food fighting childhood obesity in schools?


Big Food (aka the food and beverage industry) is now fighting childhood obesity in an attempt to re-invent themselves as ‘healthy’ and definitely not obesity-causing. Unsurprisingly, schools (and their young captive audience) have been positioned as the key site through which to wage the ‘war against fat kids’.

The relatively new ‘health-washing’ tactics of Big Food are perhaps best demonstrated by the International Food and Beverage Alliance (IFBA), a coalition between the CEO’s of Nestlé, General Mills, Ferrero, Kellogg’s, Grupo Bimbo, Kraft Foods (now Mondelēz International), Mars, PepsiCo, The Coca-Cola Company, and Unilever.[1] In recent times these Big Food corporations have made a number of commitments to be ‘part of the solution’ to childhood obesity (commitments which are, of course, self-concocted and self-regulated).

For instance, these multinational corporations (and associated regional companies) have pledged: to not advertise food and drink to children under 12; to promote physical activity, balanced diet, and healthy lifestyles; and, to not market food and drinks in primary/elementary schools.

However, Big Food’s promises have some important exceptions. The corporations swore they would not market food to children except when the products meet certain nutritional criteria and except when less than 50% of the advertising viewers are under 12 years.

Significantly, the IFBA’s Global Policy on Marketing and Advertising to Children and all but one the IFBA’s national pledges promised “not to engage in product marketing communications to students in primary schools, except if requested by, or agreed with, the school administration for specific educational purposes.”

The phrase ‘educational purposes’ is crucial to understanding the changing business/corporate philanthropy strategies of Big Food. As the front doors of schools were closing to the explicit and obvious tactics of Big Food’s advertisers, the back doors were prised open to allow corporations into schools to market their ‘healthy’ products and brands – all in the name of ‘fighting childhood obesity’.

These school-based solutions to childhood obesity take a variety of forms across the globe and involve more than just the members of the IFBA. Multinational, regional and local businesses market themselves as ‘part of the solution’ to obesity by using an array of strategies (click on the links to see examples): fundraising activities, interactive web games, incentive schemes, creating educational resources, providing edutainment events, and funding physical activity initiatives, physical education programmes and foodnutrition, and health education lessons.

Ronald McDonald in a New Zealand primary school for the 'My Greatest Feat' physical activity promotion

Ronald McDonald in a New Zealand primary school for the ‘My Greatest Feat’ physical activity promotion

Children are taught by Coca-Cola about food, fitness and fatness through the Step With It®, Singapore! programme

Children are taught by Coca-Cola about food, fitness and fatness through the Step With It®, Singapore! programme

‘So what’s wrong with that?’ I’m often asked by parents and teachers, ‘at least they are now doing something about it!’ However, after spending the past three years researching how and why Big Food is fighting childhood obesity in schools, my view is that this corporate war has the potential to do more harm than good on children’s thoughts, actions, bodies and lives.

It allows corporations to use increasingly stealthy marketing techniques to build brand loyalty, trust and goodwill. It promotes public schools as legitimate sites for private gain. It re-invents Big Food companies as philanthropic and socially responsible ‘saviours’ of children (especially fat children) and of schools.

And critically, it allows Big Food to shape children’s understanding of what it means to be healthy, by ‘teaching’ children a particular view – a corporate-friendly view – about what it means to be fat or obese.

What these school-based corporate obesity solutions look like, how they are implemented, and what they aim to ‘teach’ children about health, fitness and fatness will be discussed in future blogs. But for now, I ask you this: do you know what Big Food is trying to teach your kids? Let me know what is happening in a school near you @darrenapowell or comment below!

Hands up if you think it's wrong for Ronald McDonald to be teaching kids about health!

Hands up if you think it’s wrong for Ronald McDonald to be teaching kids about health!


[1] In 2012 McDonald’s became a member of the IFBA. The IFBA has a number of ‘associate’ members also, such as the Grocery Manufacturer’s Association and The World Federation of Advertisers.

[2] Not all pledges use this exact wording, but contain a similar phrase which allows commercial activities and/or communication in primary schools if it is for ‘educational purposes’. Mexico is the only country that does not have this phrase included in their IFBA pledge.


The war on fat kids is decadent and depraved … and dangerous

This, my first blog, aims to lay down a few foundations for a critique of the so-called ‘war on childhood obesity’. My interest in childhood obesity – possibly to the disappointment of some – is not to provide hints, tips, justifications and techniques for making children lose weight, ‘get off the couch’, increase their fitness, make healthy lifestyles choices, or avoid getting fat. Nor is it to spread the taken-for-granted ‘truths’ about childhood obesity ‘epidemic’ – its alleged threat to the economy, national security, global warming (yes really!), and children’s life expectancies. There are already more than enough ‘experts’ that do this ad nauseum.

Instead, what I aim to do is challenge these above ‘truths’ and shed light on how the war on childhood obesity is decadent, depraved and dangerous; a war waged not against a disease (because obesity is NOT a disease), but a war that targets actually-existing, walking, talking, living children.

One of things I would like to do with my blog, as well as my research, is to encourage people to engage in the wider debate and discussions about childhood obesity. This, of course, is not a simple task. It requires people be open to the possibility that not everything that happens in the name of ‘fighting childhood obesity’ is inherently good. It is not. It is in many ways, dangerous.

I am well aware that some readers may indeed find my views ‘dangerous’. Over the years, presenting at various conferences, symposia, workshops; publishing articles and giving radio interviews, talking to classroom teachers, academics, health professionals, and PE specialists, I have become accustomed to people disagreeing with what I have to say – sometimes through measured debate, other times through the medium of abuse. This is pretty much ‘business as usual’ for those working in such fields of critical obesity research, fat activism, health education and physical education; and those who continue to challenge the ‘truth’ that fat people are immoral, stupid, lazy, ugly, unhealthy and a burden to society.

So what I seek to do over the next weeks and years is to add to what a number of people have done before me: provide a catalyst for discussions about what the war on fat kids means for kids – and for schools. I will draw on my decade of experience as a primary school teacher, share some of my recent PhD research, and continually contest dominant notions of fatness, bodies and health.

In particular I will focus the plethora of interventions and initiatives forced onto children ‘for their own good’, particularly those in our schools. I will interrogate the plethora of reports and news articles that reproduce the idea that fat=bad, fat=unhealthy, fat=lazy, and that fat kids need fixing, controlling, surveiling, or even saving. And I will explore how the current ‘panic’ about fat kids has opened up a space that is being exploited by a number of key players: academics, corporations, the media, government agencies, politicians, ex-Presidents and Presidents’ wives, doctors, nurses, public health advocates, teachers, journalists, film-makers, fitness instructors, TV presenters, celebrity chefs, schools, parents, actors, community groups, charities, and even Muppets.

One final word on the title of my blog: ‘The war on fat kids’. Some may the term ‘fat kids’ offensive. It certainly is not my intention to offend, although it is my aim to provoke. What the title suggests is a shift in focus, from the notion of ‘childhood obesity’ (as a measure for body mass, and a poor measure for health) to the ‘real-life’ children who are (and are not) fat.

After all, as with any war, there is bound to be some collateral damage.

Enjoy – and stay tuned…


Note: My title is borrowed from Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘The Kentucky Derby is decadent and depraved’.