Kids for Sale

On a flight from New York last week, I was seated next to a 12-year old who was traveling alone. 

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He turned out to be a terrific conversationalist, and for about three hours we talked about everything from skateboarding to stomachaches. Our chat about stomachaches led rather seamlessly into a spirited discussion about junk food — and, more specifically, junk food advertising in the schools. Apparently there’s a lot of it.

I first got interested in this topic a couple of years back when we did a feature called “Lunch Break” (September/October 2003). In doing background research for that article (available in our online archives), I learned more than I really wanted to know about the National School Lunch Program, including how it has been compromised by agribusiness surpluses and special interests, and how, as a result, school lunches have become dangerously laden with saturated and trans fats, sugar, refined flour, and empty calories of all sorts.

I also learned that in many cash-strapped schools, fast-food franchises pay to operate on site, and soda companies pay for “pouring rights” that permit them to line the halls with vending machines. Meanwhile, advertising for brand-name junk-food products has made its way into textbooks, educational posters and TV shows, school Web sites, even academic reward programs. And that’s just in the schools. Last year the food industry spent $10 billion direct marketing to kids. Cartoon-character tie-ins, clever cross promotions — they have it down to a dastardly science.

Junk-food business interests like to argue (and are often shockingly effective at lobbying) that kids just need to make smarter choices, and that parents need to do a better job of teaching their kids to exercise and eat right. But most well-respected health experts view such arguments with extreme skepticism. They insist that parents, school administrators and legislators must work together to reduce the prevalence of unhealthy foods in our kids’ midst.

It seems that such efforts are beginning to make some headway — or at least some noise.

A variety of nonprofit groups, including Commercial Alert (www.commercialalert.org) and the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education (www.ibiblio.org/commercialfree), are helping parents and schools advance anticommercialism initiatives, as well as media-literacy efforts, to help kids become more aware of how advertising drives their behavior. Other groups are launching aggressive efforts to improve the quality of school-lunch offerings (check out the School Foods Tool Kit at www.cspinet.org/schoolfoodkit) and to educate kids about where healthy food comes from (see the Rethinking School Lunch Guide at www.ecoliteracy.org/programs/rsl-guide.html and other resources at www.sustainabletable.org/schools).

Last January, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a new policy statement calling for the elimination of soft drinks from schools. Their statement encourages doctors to contact superintendents and school board members to drive home the fact that schools share a responsibility for the nutritional health of their students and that students should not become a captive audience for junk-food purveyors. In 2004, Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa secured $1 million in federal funding for a study by the Centers for Disease Control on the impact of food marketing on children’s health. He also called on the food industry and broadcasters to make changes in the way they target children, and announced that he would be introducing legislative measures that would restore Federal Trade Commission authority over marketing aimed at kids.

It remains to be seen how successful such efforts will be, of course, but it’s heartening to see that genuine concern for kids’ health has risen to an action-inspiring level. It’s also encouraging to talk with kids smart enough to realize that there’s a battle being waged for their benefit — a battle in which they have an important role to play.

Up in the clouds with my new 12-year-old pal, I found cause for hope. Here was a kid well aware that he was the target market for all sorts of health-sucking products. And once he got talking to me, he quickly learned that drinking Mountain Dew was probably not the best way to deal with his stomachaches (even if it did help him “bring up a burp”). But it was when the flight attendant came around with the smelly meal cart that I got the biggest grin of all: My friend and I politely declined the industrial plastic trays we were offered and reached into our backpacks instead. We’d each brought our own brown-bagged lunch.

Pilar Gerasimo is the founding editor of Experience Life.

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