As the writer of a daily blog about kids and food, the issue of childhood obesity is of course front and center in my mind. But through my research and writing on the topic, and through my active participation in local school food reform efforts here in Houston, I’ve come to believe no proposed “solution” to the crisis will get us anywhere at all -- unless kids themselves become invested in change.
Taking school food as one example, I’ve seen my school district try to do the right thing by offering healthful options on the elementary school menu – items like brown rice, cheese and pinto beans wrapped in a whole grain tortilla, or a wholesome chicken soup – only to see such foods often greeted with the ubiquitous comment, “That’s nasty!” and land in the trash uneaten. Meanwhile, Houston ISD does a brisk business in items like pizza and corn dogs, “carnival” foods the district is terrified to discontinue lest student participation drop and the entire school lunch program sink into the red.
But it should be no surprise to anyone that pizza wins hands down over brown rice in our current culture. On one end of the equation, there's a relentless, overwhelming tide of marketing aimed at our children, encouraging the regular consumption of highly processed, sugar-, chemical- and fat-laden foods that are demonstrably bad for kids’ health. As Kelly Brownell, director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, once noted, "The Roberts Wood Johnson Foundation is by far the biggest funder of work on childhood obesity, and it’s now spending $100 million a year on the problem. The food industry spends that much every year by *January 4th* to market unhealthy food to children" (emphasis mine).
In response to accusations of harmful influence on our children, the food industry likes to point out its voluntary participation in a program, headed by the Council of Better Business Bureaus, called the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. Under their latest pledge, seventeen major food manufacturers have agreed to devote 100% of their child-directed advertising to “better-for-you” foods, or to not engage in such advertising at all. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Sure -- until you take a look at the approved list of “better-for-you” foods, which includes such items as Kool-Aid Singles, Lunchables Chicken Dunks, Cupcake Pebbles cereal and Chocolate Lucky Charms. Clearly the fox is guarding the hen house under this voluntary scheme. So if we’re seriously committed to combating childhood obesity, real legislative muscle needs to be employed to restrain these manufacturers from teaching our kids all the wrong messages about food.
On the other side of the equation, we have a population of children that is, by and large, food illiterate. Often through no fault of their own, overworked, two-income or single parent families have abandoned home-cooked meals, regular family dinners, and the passing on of cultural food-ways that, until only recently, have been part of every child’s informal education. When you superimpose on all of these little blank slates the powerful external forces at work to promote poor eating choices – coupled with the fact that processed, unhealthful foods are generally delicious -- it’s surprising indeed if any child chooses the brown rice over the pizza slice.
So while we’re working to restrain harmful messages from corporate America, we also need a complimentary, wholesale effort to provide every school child in America with a basic course in food literacy. Just as schools have stepped in to teach hygiene, sex education and driving skills (all “extracurricular” topics once taught only by parents), they can also provide bare-bones information on nutrition and cooking, arming kids with critical information about the effects of their own food choices and how to eat healthfully for life.
But finally, and most importantly, we need to invest children with a sense of ownership of this issue. Without this piece of the puzzle, I fear that any educational efforts fall on deaf ears. One solution is a widespread, well-funded public health campaign to inoculate kids against the forces that lead to unhealthful eating, akin to that used to discourage teen smoking. Kids generally don’t like having someone try to pull the wool over their eyes, so just as we’ve made them savvy about the tobacco industry’s insidious techniques to get them to use cigarettes, we need to show kids that the food industry is, in a very direct way, making money at the expense of their own health.
Tally up my three proposals – legislation, education and inoculation -- and you have a very hefty price tag, not to mention the need for enough political will to take on the extremely powerful, well-funded food lobby. Are we there yet? Sadly, I don’t think so.
But when the seeds of the current childhood obesity public health crisis come to fruition --- when we all watch as an entire generation of adults’ lives are cut short by diabetes and heart disease, when our nation finally has to pay the looming $344 billion obesity-related health care bill -- maybe, just maybe, we will be.