A Maine student’s homework, brought to you by Oreo

A Maine student's homework sheet. Source: Maine Public Health Association

A Maine student’s school work. Source: Maine Public Health Association

Ladies and gentlemen, a Maine student’s opinions about snow — brought to you by Oreo.

You don’t often see a child’s schoolwork sponsored by a multinational cookie brand.

But food marketers regularly advertise to students in Maine schools using less overt tactics, according to Tina Pettingill of the Maine Public Health Association. She used the Oreo worksheet, passed along by a friend whose child completed it, to raise support for a bill to limit food marketing in schools.

The measure, LD 985, died Tuesday after a veto by Gov. Paul LePage. The House later sustained the veto.

The legislation sought to align Maine’s law governing food and beverages marketed in schools with revised national USDA standards. Those guidelines created new nutrition standards for foods sold outside the cafeteria, including vending machine and a la carte items and snacks students peddle for fundraisers on campus.

Adopted under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, the goal was essentially to stop kids from bypassing salads and fruit in the lunch line to grab candy bars from a vending machine in the lobby.

Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Some states have pushed back against the standards as too strict, saying they hamper school efforts to raise money through snack sales.

According to Pettingill’s group, the defeated legislation would have clarified Maine’s existing law, to help schools distinguish between permissible and prohibited marketing. It also would have banned marketing like the Oreo worksheet.

“It’s about the ways marketing gets into the minds and hands of students during the school day without people really noticing,” she said.

Since 1985, federal law has prohibited the sale of “foods of minimal nutritional value” during public school mealtimes. Maine expanded its law to include junk foods sold anytime during the school day, and in 2007 became the first state to outlaw “brand-specific marketing” of unhealthy foods at schools.

For example, corporate logos are generally allowed, unless they’re used to promote the sale of a food or beverage item. (Coke and Pepsi, as both products and corporate logos, are exceptions and in mosts cases prohibited).

Despite the law, Maine high schools have been plastered with promotions for junk foods, according to a March 2012 study by Michele Polacsek, an associate professor of public health at the University of New England. The marketing appeared on walls, vending machines, scoreboards, coolers and inside yearbooks, among other spots. Coke and Pepsi products topped the list of the most commonly advertised junk foods.

BDN Photo Illustration | Kevin Bennett

BDN Photo Illustration | Kevin Bennett

“There is absolutely zero justification for using our children as captive pawns to hawk unhealthy products,” Pettingill told a legislative committee that ultimately recommended passing an amended version of the bill.

She highlighted some worrisome statistics:

— Nearly half of Maine fifth-graders are overweight or obese.

–Pediatric obesity is projected to cost Maine $1.2 billion over the next 20 years.

— Companies spent $150 million marketing foods and beverages in schools in 2009.

Gov. Paul LePage at the Reiche Community School in Portland in June 2014. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Gov. Paul LePage at the Reiche Community School in Portland in June 2014. Troy R. Bennett | BDN

But LePage viewed the bill as an example of government overreach. The USDA standards apply to schools that participate in the federally subsidized national school lunch and breakfast programs. That’s most schools, since the majority rely on the government funding to feed their students.

The legislation would have substituted the “judgement of lawmakers in Washington for the judgement of parents and school board members in our local communities,” LePage wrote in his veto message.

The governor also said the bill would jeopardize funding from food and beverage sales that many communities rely on to pay for sports activities.

“By outlawing incentives such as pizza certificates, which are used to bring about and reward academic success, the bill tells families that the government knows better than they do how to raise their kids,” LePage wrote.

Jackie Farwell

About Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and finding new ways to help you stay well. I live in Gorham with my husband Nick and our hound dog Riley.