UNE’s Michele Polacsek co-writes op-ed on distance learning’s effects on nutrition

Michele Polacsek, Ph.D., M.H.S., professor of public health and director of the Center for Excellence in Public Health at UNE, has co-authored an op-ed for the Sunday, Sept. 20, issue of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram addressing the potential risks of distance learning on students’ nutrition as the COVID-19 pandemic endures.

Polacsek co-wrote the Maine Voices column, “For many kids, distance learning makes healthy eating a lot harder,” with Julia McCarthy, J.D., interim deputy director of the Tisch Center for Food, Education, and Policy at Columbia University.

The pair write that distance learning can guard students from the in-person situations that may transmit the novel coronavirus, but that, for some students – particularly those from low-income families – increased use of digital tools could exacerbate diet-related disease.

“The COVID-19 crisis has made clear that our diets are putting us in danger,” Polacsek and McCarthy write. “Patients with obesity, diabetes and hypertension are more vulnerable to the virus, meaning that healthy eating should be a top priority. Yet, for millions of low-income students no longer able to easily access school meals, healthy eating just got a lot harder.”

Polacsek and McCarthy further say that food marketing on digital educational platforms may make it even more difficult for students to eat healthily.

Reviewing the educational website ABCya.com, which contains learning games for students of all ages, the authors found banner ads for sugary cereals, fast food items, and processed meat snacks. The website allows users to pay extra to remove ads, but, for those already on a budget, this may not be a viable option.

“Food marketing not only undermines educational messages but also can create inequitable learning environments and exacerbate racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities in health,” the authors state. They then argue that food marketers should adhere to the same standards of advertising on digital platforms that they are legally required to for advertising in schools: if it is unhealthy, it cannot be advertised in the educational space.

“The current public health crisis has highlighted the important role schools play in students’ diets,” Polacsek and McCarthy say in closing. “Let’s take this opportunity to ensure that even in this time of distance learning, schools promote healthy, lifelong behaviors.”

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