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. 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 food, nutrition, and health education lessons.
‘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!
 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.
 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.