Rates of childhood and adolescent obesity continue to soar in the U.S. Parents, medical professionals and policy wonks point to a host of causes when discussing the problem. In particular, the availability of nutrient poor food has come under increasing scrutiny. A new report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) outlines the efforts that will be made going forward to improve the school lunch program. At the same time, watchdog groups are calling on food marketers to change the focus of TV ads that target children.
Currently, nearly 20% of kids between the ages of 6 and 19 are obese. Analysts at the USDA-based Economic Research Services (ERS) have tracked the changes eating patterns over the past 30 years, a period that coincides with the spike in childhood obesity. Food away from home (FAFH) increased from 20% of a child’s total intake to 35%. This shift has contributed to the consumption of nutrition-poor food and an average of 107 extra calories per meal. A quick and rough calculation shows that children who have been eating school lunches every day and 2–3 dinners out a week at a quick-serve or other restaurant that feature a calorie-rich, nutrient-poor kids’ meal can add 1 pound onto the average child every month.
The latest report from the Yale Rudd Center on this topic calls for quick serve restaurants to get creative in marketing and branding their healthier options and to develop additional healthy food choices that will appeal to children and teens. The report includes recommendations on the upper limit of calories and sodium for both breakfast and lunch options marketed by quick-serve restaurants.
Even as consumer groups have been calling for quick serve restaurants and other food marketers to reduce the promotions of low-nutrient food targeting children, the Yale Rudd report finds that in TV marketing alone, ad exposure has increased. The youngest viewers have seen the following increases in TV advertising in the past year:
- Preschoolers +4%
- Ages 6–11 +5%
- Teens +2%
And it’s the composition of the type of TV advertising that has analysts at Yale Rudd asking for change. For school age children, here’s how the numbers look with respect to ad exposure:
- Kids’ meal 35%
- Lunch/dinner items 30%
- Value/combo meals 15%
- Branding <5%
- Healthy options <2%
- Other items <10%
Less emphasis on value meals and kids' meal and more promotion of healthy options could lead to big changes in obesity rates.
Progress has been made in school breakfast and lunch programs and the USDA intends to further improve the nutritional aspects of its offering. Marketers may also find themselves under increasing pressure to promote healthy foods to children who are struggling with obesity problems at unprecedented levels and which may translate to long-term health problems.
Look for the national conversation on this topic to continue and for marketers to begin making changes to their ad campaigns and their menus.[Sources: Childhood Obesity. CDC.gov. Web. 23 Dec. 2010; Evaluating Fast Food Nutrition and Marketing to Youth. Yale Rudd Center.org. December 2010. Web 23 Dec. 2010; How Food Away from Home Affect Children’s diet Quality. Economic Research Service. USDA.gov. October 2010. Web. 23 Dec. 2010]