Policy Point Wednesday: Advertising vs Education Spending

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast week, Marion Nestle of the blog Food Politics had some fun with numbers: she created a chart to compare profits and advertising expenditures for the top 10 bestselling brands of cereal, which include popular cereals from Kellogg, General Mills and one from Post.  These 10 foods alone, most of which are high in added sugar, represent over $669 million dollars worth of advertising (Honey Bunches of Oats clearly is spending money, but the figure wasn’t included) and over 3 billion dollars worth of revenue from July 2012-June 2013.

Contrast that with Federal spending on nutrition education – which in 2007 was around 800 million dollars (not just for 10 foods, but for all nutrition education) but which is to initially be cut by over 26 million dollars with cuts continuing over time.  Most of that money is targeted towards low-income Americans who participate in programs like SNAP and WIC, although the extension offices who use the money also provide materials used by schools around the country.  (Otherwise, schools often use – you guessed it – promotional materials from food advertisers to provide nutrition education.)  The USDA’s ERS pointed out this disparity back in 1997, showing how nutrition education spending was a tiny percentage compared to food advertising dollars, and what’s more, advertising dollars had a more efficient reach than nutrition education.

The Center for Media Literacy points out that “…there is a direct connection between a society’s (or individual’s) levels of exposure to advertising and the levels of consumption,” even if individuals forget over 90% of the advertising they see.  In contrast, the RAND corporation finds that “Summer vacation takes a toll on students’ knowledge and skills. When they report to school in the fall, they perform, on average, one month behind where they left off in the spring.”  Considering that the NIH has documented that nutrition education is an effective tool against diseases like type 2 diabetes, and is more cost-effective than other interventions, shouldn’t we look at addressing the disparity between advertising and education?

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