In June 2018, the Governor of Rhode Island signed into law legislation to eliminate junk food advertising and marketing on school property with the goal of providing all children across the state with a healthier learning environment.
In 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) adopted a final rule that states that any food or beverage marketed on school property must meet federal nutrition guidelines. Following the USDA’s decision, advocates in Rhode Island sought to enact state legislation that would provide clarification and establish processes to help local schools achieve the USDA’s mission.
Rhode Island is just the fourth state in the United States, after Maine, Nevada and California, to enact specific legislation prohibiting the marketing of junk food in schools. While many Rhode Island school districts had been proactive in adopting a general policy ban on junk food marketing, community leaders still saw the need for more specific and relevant guidance. Senate Bill 2350A and House Bill 7419A, known as the “School Marketing Bill”, was championed as a tool for districts to use to help support and influence their own wellness policies.
The four-year campaign to ban junk-food marketing in schools saw many challenges along the way. The campaign started off strong, securing the bill’s passage in the Senate by an overwhelming majority.
In the third year of the campaign, advocates expected a swift vote in the Senate but ran into last-minute problems with the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which believed the bill would eliminate label redemption programs such as Box Tops for Education and hurt sales. In 2018, the American Heart Association worked with the Grocery Manufacturers Association to address participation in label redemption programs, while still limiting marketing to healthy foods and beverages and non-food items.
The success of the campaign was largely dependent on collaboration with local community partners to boost grassroots engagement. The American Heart Association (AHA) in Rhode Island, with the support of a grant from Voices for Healthy Kids, worked with 30 different organizational partners as the Alliance for a Healthier Rhode Island. Throughout the campaign, advocates engaged the community in a variety of ways, including educating lawmakers about the many ways the food and beverage industry target children with aggressive marketing tactics. Community partners also worked youth leaders to develop and share personal stories and examples of what they were seeing in their schools.
The AHA also partnered with the Rhode Island Department of Education and Department of Health, which helped in getting the support that was needed for this legislation early on. Working with officials who were willing to champion school health was a critical part of gaining momentum in the legislature.
Advocates for eliminating junk food marketing in schools found that mobilizing local students to speak up was an essential strategy in the campaign’s success. Peter Chung of Young Voices – an organization that empowers youth to become civic leaders in their communities – said that while local kids were aware of the issue, they needed more education and a platform where they could voice their opinions. “When young people are informed, they become passionate about the issues that concern them,” Chung said. Furthermore, when they are “knowledgeable about an issue, they become civically engaged, they can get very organized and they can shift the needle of policies they believe in.”
As a member of the Alliance for a Healthier Rhode Island, Chung noted that Young Voices partnered with the AHA to further educate, train and empower these students, so they were “fully prepared to represent themselves and their peers” when they advocated on the issue. Young Voices also co-organized a number of roundtable discussions to allow kids from different schools to share their experiences with junk food marketing. In addition, the group participated in a youth advocacy day at the State House to allow the students to raise their concerns directly to decisionmakers.
Chung believes that it is important for youth to have an authentic voice and bring that to the table with state leaders. Now that the “School Marketing Bill” has passed, he is eager to see the positive impacts of this policy for students throughout Rhode Island.
“It is one step in the right direction to promote healthy eating habits among our children and families,” Chung said. “We know that creating a habit for junk food starts at an early age, so if measures are put in place to remove them from schools, we can create more spaces to promote healthy eating habits.”