My friend Ivor alerted me to a scheme currently run by an American doughnut company, in collaboration with schools and community groups. The scheme involves doughnuts being sold to the school or group at a discounted rate, which are then sold on, to the public or to pupils. While the scheme might sound like a good idea at first glance, there are some major negative points.
Now, I don’t want to name any names, but Krispy Kreme have quite a long history with these kind of dealings. In America, they’ve been sponsoring school and sports events for at least a decade now. They created controversy back in the 90s when they started offering children doughnuts as incentives for good grades (although in fairness, they’re not alone). The idea proved successful because it used the cover of philanthropy; rather than coming in with overt sales tactics, they created the illusion of generosity, as if they really did care about children’s grades. In 2006, they reached Australia, again sparking controversy through their plans to operate school fundraising there, despite concurrent efforts to improve the diets of schoolchildren. Krispy Kreme strongly denied that they were specifically targeting schools.
Of course, Krispy Kreme aren’t the only corporation getting involved with American schools. Many schools now operate advertising programmes on busses and within the school, despite evidence that the revenue generated is minimal and ignoring the conflict of interest created by mixing education with corporate propaganda. Commercial Alert, an arm of the US citizen’s body Public Citizen, have recently released an interesting paper on this subject. The assertion:
A national survey found that 67.2 percent of schools
displayed advertising from at least one corporation marketing foods that have minimal
nutritional value and are high in sugar and fat. The survey estimated that between 26.6 and
30.3 million students are exposed to unhealthy food advertising in their schools
…ultimately speaks for itself. The return on investment for involvement with schools is massive for food companies; by integrating themselves into the core values of young people, at a vulnerable stage of their development, they are effectively ensuring that they have a customer for life. If advertising and education are mixed, how are students to know where one ends and the other begins? When children learn at school, they are putting a great amount of trust in their teachers that what they are learning is based in truth. To introduce corporate propaganda into this same environment is a massive violation of that trust. The end result is that we produce adults who are unable to tell the difference between truth and marketing — something which already sounds a lot like the majority of the American public.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t just stop at advertising. US schools are already contacting fast-food chains to operate in-school catering. Not only is it on offer, but students are actively demanding it:
“This community is very brand-conscious,” said Frank Castro, who runs the lunch program in the Pleasanton Unified School District. “I could offer the same hamburger or a better quality burger, but it wouldn’t increase my lunch count.”
The combination of corporate pervasiveness and unhealthy eating is a deadly cocktail for the bodies and minds of America’s next generation. Unfortunately, it provides an uncomfortable forecast for what we might be heading towards in the UK. With a Conservative government that has a quite clear agenda to privatise and deregulate, anything and everything it can, the prospect of Mc. Donalds actually operating in-school canteens within the next decade is not unrealistic.
The thing that seems somewhat surprising with the situation over here, is the willingness with which all progress towards healthy eating has suddenly been discarded. The work done by people like Jamie Oliver to reform school catering has made a tangible difference. It’s been a slow fight, but progress is being made. The shocking thing then, is that after all that progress, the slow battle to have children accept good food over brands, that a company like Krispy Kreme would suddenly be invited back into schools. Once again, it depends so crucially on the thin veil of philanthropy. If Krispy Kreme had approached a school and asked simply to sell doughnuts, or to advertise, they would have been unanimously rejected. Instead, by going under the banner of “doing it for charity“, anyone who was critical of the idea would appear to be a miser. Apparently, whether it’s climbing a mountain, or selling cocaine, it’s okay if you’re “doing it for charity”.
As it happens, doughnuts, particularly the glazed variety, are just about as bad is it gets in food terms. The sugar coating triggers a massive release of insulin, which inhibits burning fat and triggers the storing of it. Then, the bready inside digests a little more slowly, but all within that window of fat storage. It’s like the ultimate carbohydrate targeted missile. Of course, that’s why it tastes so good — has exactly the characteristics required of a food source for our ancestors, who had a limited food supply and needed all they could get. Early man had a constant battle with starvation, not obesity, so our bodies are hard-coded to take things like doughnuts and store up their energy. Unfortunately, in a society of plenty, that’s a quick route to obesity. Additionally, the insulin-fatigue of those sugar-shocks is a quick route to type II diabetes. All in all, not good.
The worst thing about this particular scheme is that kids are effectively being emotionally blackmailed into buying and eating doughnuts. It’s not only that they can buy them, but because it’s “for charity” and all their friends will be supporting them, they’re cornered. Don’t want a doughnut? What’s wrong, you hate charity? or you’re just not cool?
The really surprising thing is this isn’t completely new. Back in 2004 the Telegraph covered the issue, saying:
Privately, however, it admits that it is also seeking to benefit commercially by ensuring that large numbers of people, including young children, are exposed to its product.
So despite all the healthy-eating campaigns that have been going on since then, somehow this has been largely ignored. The Guardian lightly touched on the issue last year:
The company allows people to buy boxes of doughnuts at cost price, and then sell them for a profit for a good cause, and many of these are schools or children’s groups such as Scouts and Guides. It’s a genius idea – raise money for charity, while getting kids to sell to other kids, and mint a whole new generation of parent-pestering doughnut-eaters. “I ordered 120 doughnuts for a sale at school and they all went within 40 mins,” reads one testimonial on the British website, “I’m definitely doing it again!”
It’s possible part of the issue is just confirmation bias: once people get the two upsides in their head, great-tasting products and helping charity, they’ll subconsciously do everything they can to ignore downsides, like the health impact and mixing advertising with education.
Defenders of the scheme argue that people like me want to limit consumer choice, “people should be able to eat what they want”, they say. That argument however, is a straw man. I’m not campaigning to have Krispy Kreme shut down, in fact I quite like their doughnuts. Corporations however, have absolutely no place in educational institutions. Education needs to remain independent and objective. Young people need to be taught to be sceptical of advertising, not fed it by the people they trust to be objective. There’s also the argument that we’re making a mountain out of a molehill — that it’s not like they’re selling cigarettes to children. Well, consider this: the leading cause of death in the UK is still circulatory diseases, which are significantly affected by obesity. In a 2010 study obesity was found to be a contributing factor in over a quarter of deaths.
While very few people die in childhood due to being overweight, the eating habits that stay with us for life are developed as children. Furthermore, our general attitudes to advertising and our ability to distinguish facts from marketing messages, is also formed during this period, as part of our critical thinking skills.
It’s clear that Krispy Kreme, and other companies like this, do not have genuinely philanthropic goals. Let’s take back the neutrality of education in the UK.
Help this campaign
If you’d like to help in this campaign, you can do any of the following:
- Write to local schools and convince them of the importance of both neutrality and healthy eating habits in schools. There’s a template on the DoughNot website.
- Write to, tweet at, or email the press, national and local, to request more coverage of this issue. We’re going to add a press release to the DoughNot website.
Post links to this post and Ivor’s post in appropriate places and on social media.
- Post links to the DoughNot website (below) in appropriate places and on social media
- Let us know of other schools and other companies running similar campaigns.
Update: Since this whole thing kicked off there’s been a fair bit of interest, so we set up a website!