The corporate edible landscape of school

It’s back to school and kids aren’t the only ones heading for the classroom. Marketers are taking more and more products from the boardroom to the homeroom and lunchroom through innovative partnerships.32

A 1995 report by the US-based Consumers Union divides corporate involvement in schools into four categories. First is in-school advertising, such as advertising or corporate logos on buses, walls, scoreboards, and book covers. Second is commercialism in classroom magazines and television programmes. Third are corporate sponsored educational materials and programmes, including multimedia teaching kits, workbooks, posters, and other teaching aids. Fourth are corporate sponsored contests and incentive programmes, such as a programme with Pizza Hut restaurants that rewards reading with free pizza or deals with McDonald’s which donates vouchers as school prizes.33 In addition there is the exclusive contract with beverage companies and other firms that supply vending machines.

Corporate involvement in schools as an attempt to shape and influence children and young people’s drinking habits has a long history. Milk products have long been associated with health and growth in children and there is a strong tradition in the UK and Europe of providing milk products to children without charge. Usually, cocoa was provided, but occasionally other milky warm drinks were marketed as ‘healthy’ for growing children. During the 1930s Horlicks, a malted milk drink was served as a hot mid-morning drink in over 6000 schools every day. All the necessary equipment was lent free to schools by the suppliers as is suggested here in a school log entry dating from 1932, ‘The Horlicks rep. has called for the urn, cups etc. loaned by Horlicks, as it has been decided by vote of the children to discontinue providing the Horlicks milk each morning during the winter months.’34

The ‘Horlicks School Scheme’ appears to be an early example of corporate marketing in schools using the persuasive educational argument for choosing the product.

Horlicks is made from pure, fresh, full-cream cow’s milk and the nutritive extracts of wheat and malted barley. It is easily and quickly prepared – with water only – and served hot or cold. All the necessary equipment is lent free to schools. Reports show that in these schools the children are brighter, more alert. They have increased energy and they are more regular in their attendance than before the introduction of the Horlicks School Scheme.35

This practice of providing free milk was terminated as an entitlement in England and Wales during the 1970s in government cost-cutting measures. However, the tradition continues in Scandinavian countries where companies vigorously pursue schools as immediate customers for their products and recognize children and young people as customers of the future. Iceland’s largest dairy company has, over years, sponsored school activities and secured contracts through a child – and family-friendly marketing strategy. Rather like the milk drink company Horlicks, in the 1930s, the Icelandic Dairy Company today provides equipment free to schools to enable easier access to the product. ‘We supply the schools with refrigerators for this milk stock. The newest on the market is a refrigerator for 10-litre bags of milk and the children bring their own glasses to get the milk directly from the tap, ice-cold.’36

Today in the USA, soft-drink bottlers and distributors are among the leading supporters of school sports activities. In 2000, Sacramento City Unified School District agreed an exclusive ‘pouring contract’ with Pepsi, receiving $2 m in a five-year deal. This resulted in the entire district’s seventy – seven schools offering Pepsi as the only drink, the school authority earning twice the income available from local deals.37 In the UK, many secondary schools have come to rely on large chunks of income from contracts with companies who supply canned drink and vending machines, while primary schools have become plied with free exercise books carrying subtle advertising for a drinks manufacturer.

Deregulation and privatization of the school meals service in the UK and the USA have provided the opening for the fast food industry. But a crucially additional factor is the wider process of ‘McDonaldization’ which, according to recent critical commentary voiced in Europe, can be recognized in the demotion and the narrowing down of food within the curriculum alongside the Americanization of European eating patterns and habits.

De-skilling and ‘McDonaldization’ are parallel developments, both interacting and feeding off each other. One could not flower (or de-flower, as the case might be) without the other. We are invited to ponder on the possibility that the de­skilling experience in food education might generate another type of product – the ‘McChild’.

Since the movement to invite private companies to tender for school meals contracts began in the USA and the UK in the early 1980s, rather than a widening of choice, an increase in diversity and a raising of quality what has occurred is a rendering of stereotypical fast and cheap food as a substitute for a nutritious midday meal. Ultimately, eating environments resemble one another – a Burger King interior is more or less identical whether you are eating your burger in Paris or New York. The disciplinarian regime of the school meal service is becoming, in many places, supplanted by the uniformity of logo-laden, market-driven carbohydrates. The ‘McDonaldization’ of the school lunch is well underway and meals can now be taken without the awkward clutter and clatter of plates and cutlery.

In contrast to the clear desire for quality and choice voiced by children recently in their entries to the ‘School I’d Like’ competition, surveys of what children and young people prefer to eat at lunch times in school environments regularly report what we are not surprised to hear. When faced with the restricted range of products on offer the result is predictable in underlining what we are assumed to believe is true. ‘Now it’s official: this most recent survey found that a plate of chips is the most popular savoury lunch, followed by pizza, sausage or hot dog, spaghetti and burger.’39

‘Kids will be kids’ is the resigned message that is conveyed, one that seems to suggest that although worrying, there is little that can be done about it in spite of the growing incidence of childhood obesity and associated ill health. The old and traditional has become replaced by the new and familiar and with it a new way of calculating the cost, value and efficiency of the school meal.

It could be argued that it is the wider contextual landscape of branded packaging that is the most insidious and powerful in the long term. Some schools in South Yorkshire, England, have done away with cutlery and plates altogether and the lunchtime meal is consumed with the help of paper cones, plastics, polystyrene and of course aluminium cans. Paradoxically, this is partly conceived of as a form of waste management – the waste being the ‘left-over’ foodstuff that in the past would have been substantial since children had little choice but to take what was offered. This ‘waste’ was often recycled and made its way to the local piggery. However, strangely, the waste products of the minimalist school canteen do not appear to count as waste at all. The disposal of polystyrene cups and plates, papers and card, sometimes sporting logos of corporate sponsors, mimic the practice outside of school in the local

McDonald’s or Pizza Hut. The acceptance of such materials and the management of their disposal within educational environments speak volumes for the neglect of any ecologically-driven curriculum and indeed the toleration, if not the promotion, of an individualistic ‘me-first’ culture.

McDonald’s sees the school landscape as fertile ground for their advertising campaigns. During the spring of 2002, a film crew were shooting a commercial for McDonald’s inside a High School in Vancouver. The commercial features a friendless boy clutching his fries and sauce hiding in the school bathroom. Here he smears his face with fries and sauce in front of a mirror. When he returns to the school corridor, his peers pursue him as the most popular boy in school!

In the USA the privatization of school meals programmes has increased in recent years with some unfortunate consequences for public health. The edible landscape of public schools in the Chicago Schools District, which privatized its school meals in 1997, is reported to be one of infestation, dirt, debris and grime. Such is the state of repair of some of these school buildings that chips of an inedible kind are turning up in the food. The Chicago Tribune recently reported that ‘School kitchens and cafeterias are infested with insects and rodents. Chips of paint were observed floating in cooking pans and cafeteria walls were coated with accumulated grime’.40

Not surprisingly cases of food poisoning have risen among children in the district.

Some of the most determined and aggressive examples of ‘philanthropic’ marketing of products within schools are that of the Burger King Empire in the USA. Founded in 1997 in memory of its founder, James W McLamore, the Burger King/ McLamore Foundation is:

a public, non-profit organization which works to coordinate the entire BURGER KING® system in a philanthropic effort dedicated to providing educational opportunities for deserving youth in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico.41

Burger King loses no opportunity to remind its customers in the wider community of its worthy intentions ‘to contribute to the development of a more skilled workforce for the future’. Eating a burger in one of its thousands of restaurants in the USA, the customer is reassured that the bill for the food will include a donation to the foundation, thus enabling worthy individuals to receive scholarships. Such finance also contributes to the programme of nationwide ‘Burger King Academies’. At this time, twenty-four such ‘academies’ have been established in the United States. Burger King presents itself as a concerned company, so alarmed at the dropout rate in high schools that it has joined together with Communities in Schools, Inc. in forming a national network of twenty-four academies supported via corporate contributions and foundation funds.

Exploitation of what has been called ‘cradle to grave marketing’ can operate on parental anxieties around the learning experience of very young children. Burger King has recently collaborated with Sassy, manufacturer of ‘educational’ toys, to promote its meals. Customers are encouraged to imagine that the Burger King restaurant is indeed a landscape of learning, as while they eat their burger they have the opportunity to read about child development. Families with children under the age of three were, in January 2001, offered not simply a toy but peace of mind in the form of a Sassy premium. Ever more sophisticated in the presentation of marketing ploys, parents were assured that the choice of sixteen different designs introduced each year had been carefully chosen to match ‘four critical stages of a child’s mental development: moving and exploring, interacting and feeling, communicating and talking, and thinking and learning’.42

Food companies are quick to see the opportunities offered by government policies that insist on computer-supported teaching and learning in all schools while resources are not put in place to provide the infrastructure, hardware and training. Anxious to present a benign face to consumers, supermarket chains supply customers with vouchers to buy computers for schools and snack food companies take on the role of hosting websites for schools. A case in point is the activity over the past decade of snack food company Walkers, a UK subsidiary of PepsiCo. Walkers’ ‘free books to schools’ campaign is estimated to have distributed 2.3 million books, with 98 per cent of UK schools taking part. This was welcomed by the government as a means of helping stretch limited school budgets. More recently, Walkers has established a school website hosting function in collaboration with the UK Government body, the National Grid for Learning. Walkers has a long history of marketing with the school pupil and their parent in mind, with particular use of football heroes of the moment.

In some parts of the UK, McDonald’s already provides textbooks, Pepsi provides ‘Jazzy’ exercise books sporting subtle advertising, Cadburys has a ‘World of Chocolate’ resource pack for children, the Meat and Livestock Commission provides a recipe book and Nestle, Pringles and McVities all offer books and equipment in return for vouchers. The edible landscape of school is coming to resemble the high street and competition for this captive market is intense.43

Updated: October 14, 2015 — 1:39 am