Students learn to decode food advertisements

Traverse Heights Elementary 5th graders learn how advertising can create a healthy school food environment.

Student creates healthy food advertisement for carrots. | Photo by Sarah Perez-Sanz
Student creates healthy food advertisement for carrots. | Photo by Sarah Perez-Sanz

This January, fifth grade students at Traverse Heights Elementary participated in a two-part lesson to learn about the impact of food advertising on consumers, and then put this knowledge to work in order to encourage healthy food choices in their own cafeteria.

During the FoodCorps lesson “Secret Strategies of Food Advertising”, students participated in rapid-fire small group discussions to analyze six food advertisements to identify intended audiences. Students then discussed common advertising strategies such as the cool factor, celebrity endorsements, sneaky or heartwarming language, and facts and figures. Armed with heightened consumer knowledge and awareness, students created unique advertisements for fruits and vegetables that are served in the cafeteria.

In pairs, they dreamed up new characters and slogans to promote their product to their peers. Highlights from their advertisements include slogans such as “the greatness of kale,” “broccoli keeps you young and glowing,” and “you and your friends need kale.” One group even created “John Apple,” an apple character in John Lennon’s image. Many posters also endorsed foods based on their health benefits. The advertisements will be posted in the school cafeteria to highlight these options, create positive social norms that make fruits and vegetables “cool” while promoting healthy eating.

The second part of the lesson series focused on product names. Smarter Lunchrooms, a tool that provides free or low-cost strategies to build a healthy lunchroom environment, recommends involving students in creating inventive names for menu items. The idea is that the names students generate are more likely to attract their peers, which improves meal participation and creates a sense of ownership in students. In the lesson, students studied names of commercial food products to gather inspiration to create their own for lunch items already served regularly at school. They came up with names like “champburger” (for hamburger) and “dazzling lasagna.” The new names were shared with the TCAPS district nutritionist for consideration to be used on the district-wide elementary school lunch menu.


"You and your friends need kale." - Student poster promoting kale | Photo by Sarah Perez-Sanz

This exercise fulfills all three parts of FoodCorps’ programming in schools: hands-on learning, healthy school meals, and a school-wide culture of health. The student engagement and classroom to cafeteria connection of this lesson lends farm to school the staying power it needs to succeed in schools. When multiple parts of a school community benefit from a program, it is more likely to create a long-term shift.

For more information on the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement visit their website. Learn more about how Michigan State University Extension supports and implements these efforts in local schools by visiting the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement program page.

Sarah Perez-Sanz is currently a FoodCorps Service Member with Michigan State University Extension Grand Traverse County, serving two elementary schools in Northwest Michigan. 

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