Most US students are targets of food and beverage marketing at school

January 13, 2014
Diane Swanbrow

Angled view of a vending machine. Image credit: Leon Brooks, Public Domain ImagesANN ARBOR—Most public elementary, middle and high school students are exposed to some kind of commercial marketing efforts at their schools, designed to increase sales of food and beverages or develop brand recognition and loyalty in order to increase future sales.

That is the key finding of a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research and the University of Illinois-Chicago’s Institute for Health Research and Policy.

The study, published online by JAMA Pediatrics, examines national trends in student in-school exposure to commercially marketed food and beverages, many of which are nutritionally poor.

U-M researcher Yvonne Terry-McElrath and colleagues analyzed data from 2,445 elementary schools, 816 middle schools and 802 high schools around the country. School administrators answered a series of questions designed to measure commercial activity related to food and beverages in the schools. Among the measures:

  • Whether schools or school districts receive incentives, such as cash awards or donations of equipment, supplies or other donations, once total beverage or food sales from an exclusive vendor exceed a specified amount.
  • Whether any company sells food or beverages in vending machines at school.
  • How much a school or school district profits from sales of food or beverages.

The researchers found that only about 3 percent of elementary school students attended schools with exclusive beverage contracts with a specific vendor in 2012. But nearly 50 percent of middle school students and nearly 70 percent of high school students attended schools with these exclusive contracts.

Nearly a quarter of middle school students and slightly more than half of high school students attended schools with food vending machines, the study found. And about 10 percent of elementary students, 18 percent of middle school students and 30 percent of high school students attended schools where fast food was available at least once a week.

“Although there were significant decreases over time in many of the measures we examined, the continuing high prevalence of school-based commercialism supports calls for, at minimum, clear and enforceable standards on the nutritional content of all foods and beverages marketed to youth in school settings,” Terry-McElrath said.

The study was based on data from the Food and Fitness Study conducted at the University of Illinois-Chicago and the Youth, Education and Society Study, conducted at U-M’s Institute for Social Research. Both studies are part of the larger Bridging the Gap research initiative funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.


Established in 1949, the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research is the world’s largest academic social science survey and research organization, and a world leader in developing and applying social science methodology, and in educating researchers and students from around the world. ISR conducts some of the most widely cited studies in the nation, including the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers, the American National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, the Columbia County Longitudinal Study and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China and South Africa. ISR is also home to the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research, the world’s largest digital social science data archive. For more information, visit the ISR website at