Into the Mouths of Babes

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Into the Mouths of Babes

By Jill Howard-Church on Animals and Society Institute

Studies routinely show the relationship between poor dietary habits and childhood obesity and illness, and yet both cafeteria menus and product placement in schools only feed the problem - literally....Ronald McDonald is given greater influence over our children than the president.

Last week I watched as conflict erupted around President Obama's televised address to schoolchildren like a zit on prom night. Parents were screaming about children being "indoctrinated" and "brainwashed" by a message (or was it the messenger?) they opposed before hearing. I found it disturbing not just because of the petty politics involved, but because these same parents seem to have no problem letting their children be exposed to life-threatening food-related propaganda in school on a daily basis. The distinction between real vs. imagined harm was quite stark.

At a time when the country is fixated on healthcare issues, the presence of fast food and commercial advertising in public schools remains largely unchallenged. Studies routinely show the relationship between poor dietary habits and childhood obesity and illness, and yet both cafeteria menus and product placement in schools only feed the problem - literally.

What this country says about healthy diets and what it does are often very different things, particularly when it comes to feeding children. Eating habits are established early in life, and yet ignorance, convenience and/or cost often result in too many children eating poor quality food.

It's hard even to get healthy menu options in school lunch programs. As a parent of two vegetarian children who have brown-bagged it since kindergarten, I know. The American Dietetic Association has publicly endorsed vegetarian diets for both children and adults, stating in its position paper that "appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate, and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases." And yet most school menus have atrociously high-fat, high-cholesterol entrees most of the time, and many schools allow fast-food franchises such as McDonald's, Chik-fil-A and Pizza Hut to sell their products directly to students in the cafeteria.

It stands to reason that if, as some research predicts, banning fast-food ads on television would lower childhood obesity by as much as 18 percent, then banning fast-food advertising in schools would also have an important impact. It is equally logical that if children can be taught healthy eating habits early on, their healthcare needs as adults will decrease along with their rate of disease. Isn't that a win-win situation?

Yes, unless you're a multinational supplier of cheap meat with a lot of profits on the line, in which case the status quo is pretty good. All fast-food companies have to do these days is offer schools large amounts of chicken nuggets, pizza or burgers at low cost, along with fundraising opportunities to offset cash-strapped school budgets, and you've got entire school systems literally eating out of corporate hands. Administrators and parents either look the other way or outright support this bona fide form of indoctrination and brainwashing without even acknowledging it as such.

There has been a slowly growing effort to change school policies to reduce meat-laden fast food from being marketed to schoolchildren, including campaigns by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Some progress is being made in the form of restricting soda machines in schools and slightly increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables on menus.

And yet again this year, my kids came home the first week of classes with a fast-food coupon in the same folders as their official school documents. In the same school system, mind you, that refused to show the president's education address last week. I've heard similar stories elsewhere. Which means, in essence, that Ronald McDonald is given greater influence over our children than the president.

That makes us all look like clowns.

Jill Howard-Church is a writer and editor who specializes in animal issues. She serves as the part-time communications director for the Animals and Society Institute, and is the volunteer president of the Vegetarian Society of Georgia.

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