Corporations Invade the Schools

Have Schools Become the Last Great Marketing Frontier?

By Michael Jacobson and Bruce Maxwell

Illustrator: O'Donnell & Riley

Colorado Springs’ cash-strapped Dist. 11 is selling ad space on everything from buses to gym walls. Above, a bus sporting the logo and mascot of a local supermarket. Credit: O’Donnell & Riley

The sixth-grade class is in the midst of a unit on nutrition and fitness called “Balancing Your Act.” To test the students’ knowledge, the teacher hands out an activity sheet. He instructs the kids to match nutrition and fitness terms with their definitions.

A student trying to match the word “fats” with the given definitions could have a hard time. That’s because the correct definition, according to the teacher’s guide, is “nutrients that supply energy and help insulate the body.” The “definition” makes fat sound like a swell substance kids should eat in large quantities.

Unfortunately, the definition doesn’t mention that some fats clog arteries and cause other health problems — some of which start in childhood. Nor does it mention that all major health authorities recommend that sixth-graders and everyone else over age 2 limit fat in their diets.

Next, the teacher hands out reprints from Sports Illustrated for Kids that are part of the “Balancing Your Act” program. These include two full-page McDonald’s ads. One quotes Jackie Joyner-Kersee, the Olympic runner, as saying: “The only time I stop is when I’m biting into a Quarter Pounder.”

The ad copy continues: “Not even Jackie Joyner-Kersee can move fast without the right fuel. And great fuel for fast movin’ includes food high in protein and carbohydrates. Like a Quarter Pounder with Cheese sandwich. Grab one for lunch and you’ll also get lots of calcium, iron, and vitamin A — all important nutrients for a healthy body. But don’t go overboard on any one kind of food, not even a Quarter Pounder. ’Cause to keep your body running smooth, you need a variety of other healthy food and lots of exercise.”

Nowhere does the ad mention that a Quarter Pounder with Cheese gets 49% of its calories from fat. Small print does admit the sandwich has a whopping 28 grams of fat, but doesn’t put this number in any context. For a typical child who eats 1,800 to 3,000 calories daily, the sandwich supplies between one-third and one-half of his or her daily fat and saturated fat quota. The sandwich also has about half of the sodium (1,090 milligrams) that a child should eat in an entire day. The ad indicates that a Quarter Pounder is a healthful food. It clearly is not.

Trading cards included with the reprints feature sports stars. Each card has a “nutrition tip” on the back. Here’s one: “McDonald’s menu has a variety of wholesome, basic foods like meat, bread, dairy products, and vegetables. Now that’s balance!” That’s a nutrition tip?

Who created these so-called nutrition education materials? Not surprisingly, it’s McDonald’s. What is surprising is that the company has the nerve to charge $17.90 for the unit.

What’s going on here? How can blatant misinformation and corporate propaganda end up in classrooms? The answer lies in three related problems: the poor quality of nutrition education in schools, the funding crisis in many school systems, and the corporate invasion of America’s classrooms.

The Corporate Curricula

While the government has failed to adequately promote nutrition in the schools, corporations have invaded American classrooms like never before. Food companies are some of the most aggressive interlopers.

In recent years, at least 75 food-related corporations or industry associations have offered materials to schools. They include the Almond Board of California, Chef Boyardee, Gerber, Hershey Foods, the National Hot Dog & Sausage Council, Pillsbury Co., the Salt Institute, the Sugar Association, and the Washington State Apple Commission, among others.

Food manufacturers and producer groups flood teachers with free or inexpensive pamphlets, games, film strips, movies, and other materials. Some provide entire nutrition curricula for preschool through high school. Others send product samples to home economics teachers, give schools money based on the number of food labels students collect, or give scoreboards to schools that accept their vending machines. And some advertise directly to students on Channel One, a television program that’s broadcast to thousands of classrooms.

Food companies’ favorite ploy is to send teachers “educational” materials for classroom use. There would be nothing wrong with this if the materials were purely educational, but most are little more than ads cloaked in the robes of educational respectability.

Consider “Around the World with Beatrice/Hunt-Wesson Inc.,” a home economics program that ostensibly teaches students about ethnic foods and nutrition. The “program objectives” listed in the teacher’s guide make the company’s motives clear. The first goal is “to introduce students to Beatrice/Hunt-Wesson Inc. products.” Five out of six activity masters for students have pictures of the company’s products and prominently feature brand names. In addition, between one and four Beatrice/Hunt-Wesson products are listed as ingredients in each of the 32 recipes included.

One lesson, called “Welcome to Rosarita,” allegedly teaches students about the foods of Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Mexico. It just happens that “Rosarita” is the name of a Beatrice/Hunt-Wesson line of Hispanic foods. The activity master for students says: “Some Hispanic foods available throughout the United States today include the Rosarita line of products.”

Another lesson, called “Oil: Now You’re Cooking” pushes students to use lots of vegetable oil. Of course, Beatrice/Hunt-Wesson produces a major line of oils. As part of the lesson, teachers are urged to have students “discover the cuisine of their own ethnic backgrounds” by finding four recipes that originated in the country of their heritage. There’s only one surprising coincidence: Every recipe includes oil.

While extolling the virtues of cooking oil, the lesson never mentions that oil is 100% fat. There’s nary a word about obesity and other dangers of high-fat diets.

We called Hunt-Wesson to ask why this information isn’t included. “This is not a nutritional program,” said Kay Carpenter, Hunt-Wesson’s manager of corporate communications. “It’s a program to teach children how to shop for and to plan for and to prepare meals. There’s a definite place for nutritional education, but these were not developed for that purpose.”

Oh? The teacher’s guide instructs teachers to tell their students that “as part of a balanced diet, fats provide a concentrated source of energy (more than twice as much in a gram of fat as in a gram of carbohydrate).” It also instructs them to say that fats and oils provide essential fatty acids and that fats help the body use fat-soluble vitamins. Isn’t that nutrition education?

There was a long pause while Carpenter read the teacher’s guide. “I see where that does provide some nutritional information,” she added. Then she tried another tack: “We don’t have anything like this that we send out any longer,” she said. “These are outdated materials.”

Oh? A teacher we know got them from Hunt-Wesson only a couple of months before the interview.

Carpenter shifted gears again. “This unit is still available if teachers specifically request it,” she said.

Oh? The teacher we got it from simply wrote to Hunt-Wesson asking for nutrition education materials. The teacher didn’t request the specific unit.

“I don’t know the specific instance,” is all Carpenter could say. Then she circled back to try again. The program dates from 1986, Carpenter said, and doesn’t mention fat’s drawbacks because fat wasn’t a major dietary issue then. “The issue with the fat and the fat labeling is something that really has come up within the last year,” she said.

That’s not true, either. In 1977, the Senate Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs urged Americans to cut their fat intake to less than 30% of total calories. In 1979, the U.S. Surgeon General also recommended that Americans limit fat in the diet. And in 1980, a pamphlet entitled “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” — jointly issued by two federal departments — said Americans should avoid too much fat.

Carpenter defended the program as “a very legitimate teaching aid” despite its listing of Hunt-Wesson products in every recipe. “They don’t need to use our products necessarily to come up with a good recipe,” Carpenter said. “We’re not trying to do anything subversive in the classroom, that’s for sure.”

Carpenter’s comments are a classic example of the fancy footwork many corporations engage in when asked about their “education” programs.

A popular tactic is to claim, as Carpenter did, that the company isn’t distributing a particular program anymore. A Kraft spokeswoman took this tack when we called to ask about the “American Taste, Cheese in the Melting Pot” program it sells to teachers for $12.

It’s little wonder the spokeswoman didn’t want to discuss the program. Pictures of Kraft products and references to them dominate the film strips, recipes, and student activity masters.

Basically, the unit is one long promotion of processed cheese. It includes a film strip titled “The Processed Cheese Story.” The film strip script begins: “Ever wonder who invented those processed cheese slices that you love in your sandwiches?” The answer, of course, is Kraft’s founder. The script concludes that processed cheese is “economical, wholesome, and versatile. For many reasons, it’s an American favorite.” Kraft even includes a packet of emulsifier so students can make processed cheese in class.

The film strips and student materials don’t say a word about the high fat and sodium levels in most cheeses. However, the teacher’s guide devotes more than a page to the protein, minerals, calcium, and other nutrients in cheese. The guide admits “some fat-modified cheese products are now available,” but says that dietary fat is necessary “for providing energy and transporting fat-soluble vitamins.”

That is propaganda, not education. Charging teachers $12 for it is the height of chutzpah.

Intentional Omissions

As the Hunt-Wesson and Kraft examples show, what companies leave out of their “educational” materials is often more important than what they put in. Some of the school materials created by the National Dairy Council can attest to this fact.

The NDC has been prodding school children to drink milk and eat other dairy products for more than 70 years. It has been active in schools longer that any other producer group or food company. “It used to be they were the only show in town,” said Isobel Contento, who coordinates the nutrition education program at Columbia University’s Teacher College.

The NDC has offices in cities around the country that distribute materials and conduct influential teacher-training workshops. For example, a Minnesota study found that from 1977 to 1985, 85% of the state’s school districts used NDC curriculum materials. Seventy-five percent of the state’s pre-schools did likewise.1

Many teachers like the NDC because it provides complete nutrition curricula for preschoolers through senior high school students. All the materials are bright, lively, and professionally produced. But for years, they’ve largely ignored the connection between fatty diets and serious health problems.

They’ve also ignored advances in nutrition education. The NDC materials clung tenaciously to the Basic Four even after it was obsolete. You remember the Basic Four — you probably learned it in elementary school. Its concept is simple: To be healthy all you need to do each day is eat a certain number of dairy products; fruits and vegetables; grains and cereals; and meat or so-called meat alternatives like fish, chicken, eggs, peanut butter, and beans.

Government health officials, along with the dairy and meat industries, developed the Basic Four in the 1940s and 1950s as part of the fight against malnutrition. Back then, the concern was that Americans weren’t eating enough food. Today, the concern is very different. Too many Americans are eating too much, particularly of foods high in fat, cholesterol, sodium, and sugar.

Nevertheless, the Dairy Council still pushes the Basic Four since it emphasizes the need to eat plenty of dairy products.

It’s not as if there haven’t been alternative nutritional guidelines available for years. “Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” issued by the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services, has been around since 1980 and provides detailed information on choosing food for everyone age 2 and above. It stresses the need to choose a diet lower in fat and saturated fat — two substances found in large amounts in most dairy products.

And in April 1992, the U.S. Department of Agriculture replaced the Basic Four with the Food Guide Pyramid. The pyramid shows graphically what foods people should eat and in what proportions. The meat and dairy industries were extremely upset by the new guidelines because the pyramid advises that their foods make up only a small proportion of the diet, emphasizing that breads, cereals, rice, pasta, fruits, and vegetables should be the dominant components.

So it’s not hard to understand why the dairy council has continued to cling to the Basic Four for as long as possible. “Eating a variety of foods from the Four Food Groups can help you get all the nutrients you need,” says the student booklet for the secondary school curriculum.2

The booklet, which was being phased out in 1994, has only a brief section on fat.

Some foods, “such as spareribs or avocado,” are naturally high in fat, according to the booklet. It doesn’t mention that most dairy products also are naturally high in fat. It’s rather a curious omission.

Some companies disguise their true intent by creating innocuous-sounding materials. Oscar Mayer does this with its “Making Food Safe” program for third-through fifth-graders. Who could oppose a program that promotes food safety? Anyone who glances through the teacher’s guide would. Teaching kids safe food habits is only one of the program’s goals. The other three goals are to teach kids “that all food is made of chemicals,” about “the role of processing in our food supply,” and about “packaging and transportation.” In plain language, the program indoctrinates students in the glories of highly processed, chemical-filled foods. Those just happen to be the kinds of foods that Oscar Mayer makes. Throughout the program there’s nary a word about the benefits of eating fresh foods.

One activity briefly discusses fat. “Fats supply essential fatty acids,” it says, “help the body use other nutrients, and supply energy.” That’s it. There’s no mention that too much fat clogs arteries. Could that be because many of the hot dogs and other products produced by Oscar Mayer are loaded with fat?

Food companies like Hunt-Wesson and Oscar Mayer don’t have much incentive to update their school materials. In any update, many of their products would look really bad. An Oscar Mayer beef hot dog, for example, has 13 grams of fat and 460 milligrams of sodium. If Oscar Mayer accurately explained what those numbers mean, some kids might stop eating hot dogs.

For the food companies, it’s far better to keep sending out their old school materials.

Other Corporate Tactics

Providing instructional materials is only one way that food companies and producer groups invade schools. Here are some others:

  • Flooding schools with product samples. The marketers aim to snare consumers early. When General Mills introduced Fruit Roll-Ups, it arranged for preschool teachers to hand out more than a million samples.3

    Sending samples to home economics teachers is a particularly effective way of hooking kids. Food & Beverage Marketing magazine surveyed nearly 1,000 home economics students nationwide. Nearly 70% said that if they used a brand-name product in class, they’d be more likely to buy it at the store. The magazine concluded: “A few dollars in freebies to the nation’s home-ec classes, apparently, could do wonders for product movement on the supermarket shelves.”4
  • Advertising on Channel One. Food companies are big advertisers on Channel One, Whittle Communications’ daily broadcast to high schools and junior highs that includes ten minutes of mostly superficial news and two minutes of slickly produced commercials.

    By early 1994, Whittle claimed that 12,000 schools with more than 8 million students received Channel One.5 Schools that sign up get free use of about $50,000 in video equipment, including TV sets, VCRs, and a satellite dish. In return, schools promise that at least 90% of their students will watch the whole broadcast, including commercials, every day. That kind of captive audience allows Whittle to charge advertisers staggering rates — reportedly $157,000 per showing of an average 30-second commercial.6

    The high rates don’t deter major food companies, who are forever seeking new ways to reach the teenage market. Channel One has carried ads for Bubblicious gum, Skittles, Gatorade, Fritos, M&M’s, Snickers bars, Burger King, and Cheetos.

    New York has banned Channel One from the public schools. Other states, including California, have vigorously opposed it. And most major educational organizations, including the National Education Association and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, have come out strongly against it.

    “The classroom and the curriculum are intended to be a marketplace for ideas, not a marketplace for someone’s products and services,” said Gary Marx, associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “We simply cannot tolerate the exploitation of students who are a captive audience in the classroom.”
  • Sponsoring label-collection projects. A growing number of food companies are asking schools to pressure students to eat their products. In January 1990, Procter & Gamble offered elementary schools money for Jif peanut butter labels collected by their students. The company gave schools a dime for each pound of Jif. Procter & Gamble blanketed the nation with magazine ads proclaiming: “The more you buy, the more we’ll give to America’s schools.” Nearly one-third of the nation’s elementary schools signed up to participate, according to Consumers Union.7

    Campbell Soup sponsored a similar program. It gave schools a variety of equipment in exchange for Campbell labels.8 A Kool-Aid program urged kids to save proof-of-purchase seals to earn computer equipment for their schools.9
  • Donating goods or equipment in exchange for getting a product into schools. This is the most crass quid pro quo, a direct trade of student health for equipment. Soft-drink companies are particularly fond of these deals. Pepsi, for example, will give an electronic scoreboard or free Pepsi for an “alcohol-free” prom night if a school will install a Pepsi vending machine. Coke also offers scoreboards in exchange for the right to install a vending machine. In some cases, Coke and Pepsi agree to give schools a percentage of their profits.10

It may be too much to expect food companies and producer groups to stop promoting their products via samples, advertising, and exchanges, let alone to publish materials describing the dangers of eating foods they sell. But if they won’t produce complete, accurate publications, schools shouldn’t use the materials. Especially not when several respected organizations — including the American Health Foundation and the American Cancer Society — are producing lively, up-to-date, factual nutrition materials for classroom use.

The underlying problem is that schools receive inadequate public funding. Food companies and other firms are all too happy to help fill this gap. If the school cafeteria is losing money at lunch, Pizza Hut leaps in to save the day. If schools lack the funds for sound nutrition education materials, companies flood them with self-serving propaganda.

This funding gap puts great pressure on schools to give in to commercial influences. There aren’t any signs that schools’ financial problems will lessen in coming years. Thus, the fight to keep them untainted by commercial pressures will surely heat up.

“As funding becomes tighter, there’s certainly the possibility that more entrepreneurs will view schools as a prime market,” said Lew Armistead, a spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “Schools are going to have to decide as a community how they’re going to deal with it.”

This article was adapted from the authors’ new book, What Are We Feeding Our Kids? (New York: Workman, 1994). Jacobson is the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Maxwell is a journalist whose work has appeared in Parenting, Mother Jones, and other publications.


  1. “Healthy by Choice: The Minnesota Plan for Nutrition and Health,” Minnesota Department of Health (December 1986), 134.
  2. Student booklet, “Smart Moves for Your Health,” National Dairy Council (1990), 6.
  3. Laurie Petersen, “Risky Business: Marketers Make a Beeline for The Nation’s Schools,” Adweek’s Marketing Week, May 14, 1990, 20.
  4. Dave Wellman, “Shopping Styles of the Young and Food-Conscious,” Food & Beverage Marketing(March 1989), 19.
  5. Greg Farrell, “The Education of Joel Babbitt,” Adweek, October 4, 1993, 26.
  6. Walecia Konrad, “How Good Is Attendance in Chris Whittle’s Class?” Business Week, January 27, 1992, 103.
  7. “Risky Business,” 21.
  8. Selling America’s Kids: Commercial Pressures on Kids of the 90’s, Consumers Union (1990), 11.
  9. “Risky Business,” 21.
  10. Selling America’s Kids, 11.