New Rhode Island Law Says “No” to Junk Food Marketing in Schools

New Rhode Island Law Says “No” to Junk Food Marketing in Schools

The Long Road to Success

In 2015, the Alliance for a Healthier Rhode Island (AHRI) took action.

Rhode Island (RI) has long been at the forefront of ensuring a healthy school environment for children; nutrition standards for RI schools predated federal action on the issue. Building on previous successes, the AHRI — a coalition of 30 diverse organizations led by the American Heart Association (AHA) — decided it was an opportune time to tackle junk food marketing and advertising in schools.

Under the Obama Administration, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) stipulated that food and beverages sold during the school day must meet federal Smart Snacks nutrition standards. However, these new rules left it to the states to further define, implement, and incentivize adherence to these guidelines.

After enlisting state legislators and longtime school health champions Sen. Susan Sosnowski (D-Dist. 37) and Rep. Joseph M. MacNamara (D-Dist. 19) as sponsors, the American Heart Association reached out to ChangeLab Solutions for model legislation and legal assistance through many rounds of negotiation and revision of the bill’s language.

“This was definitely a longer and more convoluted process than I anticipated,” said Megan Tucker, senior director of government relations for the AHA in Rhode Island. “ChangeLab’s model law and technical assistance were critical to finally getting this through the House and Senate in 2018.”

Hurdles and Pitfalls

Marketing to kids in schools has long been a source of controversy in the US education system.

Proponents argue that advertising and marketing on school property can help stave off budget cuts. At the same time, detractors, like the American Heart Association and ChangeLab Solutions, note that the marketed products are often harmful to students’ health in the long run. Research shows that aggressive marketing and advertising of high-calorie, unhealthy foods to children contributes significantly to today’s childhood obesity epidemic. Detractors further argue that corporations are essentially exploiting kids’ increased susceptibility to marketing in order to mold students into lifelong customers.

“Although the federal government prohibited schools from marketing food products that don’t meet USDA standards in 2014,” said Sabrina Adler, the ChangeLab Solutions senior staff attorney who provided assistance for the project, “it’s important that states and school districts take action on this issue, since the federal guidelines are actually quite vague.”

Throughout the legislative process, the Rhode Island law faced opposition from some lawmakers and from a national association representing Big Food. This national association raised concerns about how the proposed law would affect label redemption programs that provide limited funding for schools, such as Box Tops for Education, and conducted a misinformation campaign aimed at RI school districts. After three years of negotiation and overcoming resistance, the 2018 version of the bill overwhelmingly passed both the House and Senate and was signed into law by Governor Gina Raimondo.

“It took patience and cooperation to make this happen,” said Megan Tucker. “Fortunately for Rhode Island’s more than 142,000 students, they’re now protected from having to see junk food advertisements while they’re focused on learning.”

Protecting Students, Empowering Future Leaders

In support of banning junk food marketing in schools, the American Heart Association partnered with several community organizations — including Young Voices, the NAACP Providence Branch, Progreso Latino, and Oasis International — to help involve youth in the campaign. Young people received advocacy training and participated in Youth Advocacy Days at the Rhode Island State House.

“Our hope was that by making young people aware of how they’re targeted by food and beverage marketing, and by helping them develop their own personal stories, we would empower them to inspire change in their communities and across the state,” said Megan Tucker.

After the recent legislative success addressing junk food marketing in schools, the Alliance for a Healthier Rhode Island is now working to ensure that school districts have the support and resources needed to provide effective physical education programs.

“Getting this law passed in Rhode Island was a major step in the right direction,” said Sabrina Adler. “It demonstrates the progress that can be made when the right stakeholders are working together — like the American Heart Association and ChangeLab Solutions.”

“I’m excited to see what else we can achieve with similar partnerships across the country,” she added.

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The Rhode Island school marketing campaign was partially funded through Voices for Healthy Kids, a joint initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the American Heart Association. The collaboration is working with communities across the nation to ensure that children have access to healthy food and physical activity where they live, learn, and play. Learn more at www.voicesforhealthykids.org.