A is for Atkins? Not Yet

September 23, 2004
USA Today
by Greg Toppo

A new partnership between Atkins Nutritionals Inc. and major education groups is giving heartburn to critics, who say schools shouldn’t promote the popular but controversial low-carb diet, even by association.

Atkins will announce today that it is teaming up with the National Education Association, the New York State United Teachers, Public Schools for the 21st Century and the National Association of State Boards of Education (NASBE) to bring schoolkids a message about good nutrition and health.

Even if Atkins downplays its low-carb message, critics say, kids, parents and teachers will see the brand name at school, the equivalent of millions of dollars in advertising.

“Atkins is wrapping itself around the moral authority of NASBE and the schools to promote its controversial products and diet,” says Gary Ruskin of Commercial Alert, a non-profit group that tracks the effects of commercialism on communities.

But others say the partnership won’t adversely affect kids – and that rejecting the support of companies like Atkins is shortsighted.

Atkins won’t send educators into schools. Instead it will underwrite the groups’ nutrition and exercise efforts – for instance, helping pay for a school health Web site for the NEA, the nation’s largest teachers union.

Though Atkins says it will give NEA materials including “the latest research and information available on controlled-carbohydrate nutrition,” Jerald Newberry, who directs NEA’s Health Information Network, says that won’t affect the site’s content.

“They can supply us with whatever they want,” he says. “It’s our Web site, and we are in total control.”

Ruskin counters that if the materials Atkins underwrites simply replicate others that promote healthful eating and exercise, schools should skip the commercial content.

“The purpose of compulsory education is not to provide a captive audience for corporate marketing,” he says.

Newberry says Atkins is the first nutrition company to fund obesity programs. “Even though it (childhood obesity) is in the public eye every day, there are almost no resources.”

He says schools must be both practical and picky about accepting donations. “Are you going to live in a world where you’re trying to solve problems on your own, with your limited budget, or are you going to live in a realistic world?”

Newberry won’t reveal the financial details of the deal, but says it doesn’t cover the total cost of the Web site. Donations are still being sought.

Others say the Atkins initiative is another example of public schools’ failure to protect kids from questionable marketing, as school districts team up with corporations as diverse as Office Depot, Coca-Cola and Krispy Kreme. “Obviously this is nothing new, but it’s much more profligate and pervasive than it’s ever been,” says Arnold Fege of the Public Education Network, an advocacy group for poor and disadvantaged children. “I think where it crosses the line is where you have a quid pro quo, where the schools become part of the marketing department of the corporation.”

Most schools and education groups now have partnerships with fast food, snack food and other industrial, financial and retail sponsors.

The National Science Teachers Association’s partners include the ExxonMobil Foundation, Dupont and Alcoa. Even USA TODAY sponsors a Newspapers in Education program that provides schools with newspapers and study materials.

And teachers aren’t the only ones benefiting from corporate largesse. Last year, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry formed a “collaborative research and education partnership” with the Coca-Cola Foundation to provide programs that promote good dental habits for kids.

“Food companies are increasingly going heavily into ‘cause marketing’ to get the imprimatur of outside, supposedly well-meaning groups as a marketing strategy,” Ruskin says.

The National PTA last year angered some parents when it announced a major partnership with Coca-Cola. After Krispy Kreme doughnut stores in Palm Beach County, Fla., said they’d give elementary school students a free doughnut for every “A” on their report card, Ruskin quipped that they “should offer free coupons for insulin and syringes to kids who end up with diabetes.”

The Atkins effort offers the company clear public relations benefits, says Jay Engeln, a former Colorado Springs high school principal who consults on business partnerships for the National Association of Secondary School Principals. But such arrangements – which often include outright ads – are usually pretty low-key.

“You have to look at what’s best for your school and your community and what your community is comfortable with.”