When the School Bell Rings

Sounding the Alarm About Conflicts of Interest in Caribbean School Food Environments

by HCC

School bell with academic scrollsSchools are spaces for children to learn and grow. Lessons in and out of the classroom foster lifelong healthy habits. Therefore, the school environment should be protected; however, this is not always the case. Several food and beverage industry actors that sell and market unhealthy products, such as those high in salt, sugars and fats and often ultra-processed, are freely entering Caribbean schools with motives that do not have children’s best interests at heart.

In keeping with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Sustainable Development Goals, especially target 3.4 on noncommunicable diseases and mental health, as well as regional commitments by Caribbean Heads of Government, schools must be health-promoting spaces and safeguard the rights of children, including their rights to health and well-being, adequate and nutritious food, accurate information, privacy and non-exploitation, among other rights. However, some actors are interested in selling and marketing products, many of which are contrary to the realisation of these and other children’s rights.

Within the school food environment — wherever food and information about food are available in school settings —- the influence of these actors is of great concern. This presents a conflict of interest. The Healthy Caribbean Coalition defines conflict of interest as “a situation in which the concerns or aims of two different parties are incompatible, resulting in competing priorities and interests, with undue influence that interferes with performance, the decision-making process, or outcomes, putting objectivity and fairness at risk, often for institutional or personal gain.”

Should industry profit motives supersede children’s rights within Caribbean school settings? The answer should be obvious – no! Yet, within small, close-knit Caribbean countries, and especially in the typically cash-strapped schools, conflicts of interest occur often as some actors sell and market their unhealthy brands and products to children. Alarm bells ought to be going off whenever the physical and digital school spaces are breached to allow unhealthy food and beverage actors to profit at the expense of our nations’ youth.

With schools across the Caribbean reopening, we wish to sound the alarm about conflicts of interest in school food environments – spaces which are so key to shaping children.

Conflict of interest alarm bells in Caribbean schools

The Healthy Caribbean Coalition tracks instances of conflicts of interest involving the unhealthy food and beverage industry across the Caribbean, uncovering many examples within the school context. Two examples are the direct marketing of unhealthy products to children within the school setting and instances where brands that sell primarily unhealthy products sponsor school events or donate unhealthy products to schools.

If children’s best interests are to be a priority especially in school settings, then other interests, including corporate profit-making interests, which directly or indirectly contradict with children’s rights, would be in conflict. While supplying schools and children with branded school supplies, sponsoring school sporting events and athletes (eg. images of the company logo or brightly colored products easily identified in and around school sporting event), sponsoring school scholarships (eg. student known as a ‘fast food’ scholarship recipient ), donating unhealthy products to school food programs and facilitating unhealthy product tastings in schools may appear harmless, they should raise conflict of interest alarm bells.

These corporate activities are marketing tactics. Companies hope to make their brands known to children, planting the seeds of brand loyalty, and securing lifelong consumers. Clear evidence, reiterated by global health giants such as the World Health Organization and UNICEF, highlights that children are easily influenced by the pervasive and powerful nature of unhealthy food marketing.  Marketing can greatly influence  children’s preferences, purchase requests and consumption of ultra-processed food products which can increase total energy intake and result in excess weight gain, increasing one’s risk of developing overweight, obesity and non-communicable diseases. This persistent marketing normalizes the consumption of unhealthy products and ultimately displaces and undermines healthy diets. Such practices raise concerns as they infringe upon a child’s right to the highest attainable standard of health and contradict children’s right to be protected from health-harming information.

We should all be concerned when industry profits at the expense of children. As we imagine the world through the eyes of a school child, we must ask ourselves: Are we fostering an environment that prioritizes their wellbeing and fulfills their rights or are we allowing their health to be compromised for profit?

The way forward

Several schools across the Caribbean seem to be operating without guidance pertaining to conflicts of interest —- specifically, rules to control their engagement with industry actors. As a result, conflicts of interest occur all too frequently. This has to end.

Policies that regulate the sale and marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages in schools are needed. For example, Barbados recently implemented a School Nutrition Policy which includes a regulation on the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages in schools. Other Caribbean countries, such as Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, have also made significant strides with regards to regulating unhealthy beverages.

Policy measures that support school nutrition policies are also needed, such as mandatory octagonal ‘front-of-package nutrition warning labels (FOPNWL) as well as fiscal policies, such as taxes on unhealthy foods and subsidies on healthy foods, to protect children. FOPNWL would empower school administrators, parents and children to easily and quickly identify foods and beverages that should not be allowed within and around schools. CARICOM countries are currently voting on whether to implement this policy regionally. Fiscal measures would help to ensure that healthy foods become more accessible to parents and children. Importantly, several of these policies have been successfully implemented in other countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Mexico, and Uruguay.

However, it is expected that some actors will seek to delay, deny, and deflect implementing such necessary policies as they can impact profit margins. Policymakers must therefore stand firm and ensure that clear rules of engagement and other transparency and accountability mechanisms are in effect, including the implementation of robust conflict of interest policies to protect these policies from vested interests and access to information legislation to ensure that the public is sensitised to critical decisions that affect them.

Parents and children, recognising their rights to health and other rights, should feel empowered to actively call for healthier school environments. There should be open dialogue with school administrators and decision makers in the Ministries with responsibility for education, health, agriculture, among others, about ensuring that schools are protected as health-promoting environments.

With the regulation of unhealthy food and beverage industry actors in schools, health promoting bodies, such as insurance companies, could instead step in to become the model for sponsorship and donations in schools.

When the school bell rings, children should be guaranteed that their health and wellbeing among other rights, are taken care of, free from conflicts of interest.

International Youth Day 2023 when the school bell rings
International Youth Day 2023 when the school bell rings

Michele Baker, Kerrie Barker, Kimberley Benjamin, Vernon Davis, Christopher Laurie, Shay Stabler Morris and Danielle Walwyn are members of Healthy Caribbean Youth.

Healthy Caribbean Youth is the youth arm of the Healthy Caribbean Coalition. It is a regional group of young health advocates with various backgrounds who are passionate about promoting good health and supportive environments for children and youth.