Thursday, December 09, 2004

Fast Food Nation Gets A Little Smaller

There seems to be very little nowadays that Texas schools don't want to ban.

First there was the ban on various aspects of sex education. Now there's this: a recent Time article tells me that Texas agriculture commissioner Susan Combs eliminated junk food from elementary schools in the Lone Star State.

I'm very sympathetic to Combs' decision here. Obesity among youngsters is at an alarming all-time high, and junk food is the number one culprit. School lunches often lack any nutritional value, and children flock to vending machines stocked with snacks and drinks that are anything but salubrious (yes, Ben, I got that word from Calvin and Hobbes). It's certainly a step in the right direction. It couldn't hurt to keep our kids from drinking six Cokes a day.

Of course, there's the law of unintended consequences to worry about. Cash-strapped school districts get much-needed money from the corporations who buy the rights to sell food and drink in the schools. This new regulation can have two effects: a) corporations, in an effort to keep their contracts, start developing healthful snacks to sell in Texas vending machines, or b) corporations could decide that the advertising that saturates our airwaves will suffice, and cut ties with the school districts altogether. Somehow, I'm betting on the latter - which leaves Texas schools in a bind.

And as how much good will this ban do? Keeping kids off junk food for eight hours doesn't keep them from gorging on Cheetos and Dr. Pepper when they get home. How fit kids are, I'm afraid, may end up being mostly in the hands of parents.

As a result, I'll remain skeptical about this policy until I find out whether Texas' school districts can remain solvent and whether Texas' children slim down some. I personally think that other states looking towards this policy should bring it up in tandem with two other proposals: increased funding for school districts and more extensive nutritional education for children.

Personally, I think the junk-food ban has its heart in the right place, but fails to get to the root of the problem - underfunded school districts and an undereducated populace with respect to nutrition. But at least the powers that be in Texas are admitting that there's a problem. That's the first step towards recovery.


Anonymous said...

I'm not quite with you here, Jeff. When you say banning junk food fails to address the root of the problem of underfunding and poor nutritional education, I think you have it backwards. Accepting bribes from corporations to push their products on kids for them misses the point that quality education costs real money. And putting these products in front of kids in a place of learning negates anything we might teach them about good nutrition.

Let's assume no solution can be worked out with providers of healthier foods. Then yes, these districts will have to raise taxes. But looking at it a different way, they'll be saving money on health care in the long term, and (*gasp*) doing the right thing by their constituencies at the same time.

Mostly everybody can agree that getting junk food out of our kids' chubby hands is an admirable goal. A good first step is to stop representing that these products have the government's seal of approval.

- Pierce

Leah said...

I also disagree.

I'm not surprised that Texas has taken this action. They have the most "fat cities" than any other state in the country. Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and El Paso are all on the top 25 fattest cities in America 2004 list ( This year, Houston fell to 2nd place, but it was in 1st place for the past 3 years (this year Detroit took over the lead). Calories and fat add up. Even if they pig out after school, if you can eliminate junk food from at least one meal, you've eliminated a certain amount they normally would have consumed.

I also have a note I wanted to add from my own personal experiences. When I lived in Nebraska, the type of funding our schools were given required the schools to turn off vending machines during lunch. Sure, we all got junk food after school (such as one bag of chips), but not during lunch. In Maryland, we had a snack concession stand during break and lunch. I must confess, the majority of time, my lunch was an oatmeal pie and a chocolate nutty bar (it was cheaper than a hot lunch and I was always too busy to make a lunch to bring to school), and during break I usually had something else from the concession stand.

And if the only issue with taking out the vending machines is because of funding, then I'm sure the schools can invite Toys R'Us to set up a stand to provide the missing funding. It's healthier and still teaches kids to be good consumers.

Anonymous said...

Not to pile on the disagreement here, but I also disagree about one aspect of your article. I really don't know how much teaching about nutrition will help health. You can lead the horse to water but you can't make it drink. I know it's healthier for me to (1) eat vegetables, (2) eat less junk food, (3) exercise, (4) get more sleep, (5) be less stressed all the time. But (1) I hate vegetables, (2) I like junk food, (3) I have no real excuse about exercising but I still don't do it, (4) I'm too busy to sleep, (5) I'm too busy not to be stressed.

I don't think I can take as strong of a moral stand as Pierce, though. In the absence of getting actual funding from the government, I don't think I can fault school districts for taking funding where they can get it. If a school has to peddle Cheetos in order to make sure there's chalk for the chalkboard...then so be it. I'm not going to call that a bribe.

I'm glad Calvin and Hobbes is teaching you something, Jeff.

- Ben

Mike said...

I am defiantly against this ban, for the simple reason that, as a resident of Houston, this is going to severely hurt our attempts to retake the number 1 fattest city slot from Detroit. I, for one, have not been eating five Big Macs a day just to see my efforts go to waste because some kids get skinnier due to lack of junk food, dammit!

In all seriousness, obesity is a major problem. In my humble opinion, any steps to curb it are good. Besides, maybe once the weight problem in Texas goes away, people will start having sex again and renew the need for a sex education program that actually works.

Recommended song for this post: "Nourishment Nation" by Rogue Wave.

Anonymous said...

Ben: Not to indulge in hyperbole too much, but where does the line end with "putting chalk on the chalkboards"? What about subsidies from Apple to indoctrinate kids into the Macintosh operating system? What about using Spongebob Squarepants as a "guest lecturer" to keep their attentions?

What about accepting subsidy dollars from Trojan to increase the weight of sex-education in curricula? What about accepting donations of Comparative Religion textbooks from the Church of Scientology? What about accepting money to have teachers end their classes with "this lesson brought to you by Nike shoes"?

Some of those are obviously more ridiculous than others, not to mention that companies tend to get more bang for their buck donating to the politicians who directly control educational policy than they do by donating to the school districts themselves.

And don't get me wrong, I understand the pragmatic view that we live in a market economy, that a lot of these products are a part of kids' lives anyway and that they're almost completely harmless (i.e. Spongebob). In those cases, there's a compelling argument that we're improving educational quality with almost no harm to the students themselves.

But in the topic at hand, there's a clear and obvious harm to the health of the children in our public school systems. Are we really willing to make that sacrifice rather than convince people that they need to spend real money on education?

Since others are adding their anecdotal evidence, I'll describe my experience with junk food in public school. Before high school, I almost never drank caffeine. If I did, I was crazy-go-nuts wired for hours and hours. But my high school had a soda machine, the first one I'd ever had regular access to that wasn't in the presence of my parents. I started drinking one, then two, then three 20oz Cokes per day, then I switched to two, then three, then four or more Surges (Coke's answer to Mountain Dew) a day. I was definitely addicted, and it's an addiction I have to this day.

Obviously, it's a significant possibility that I would have simply become addicted to caffeine four years later if there hadn't been a soda machine there. But regardless, that would've been four fewer years of 1000+ extra empty calories every day before it really sank in to my brain that calories in beverages do count towards my weight. I accept responsibility for my own stupid decisions (even though I was 14), but that doesn't mean the government has to help me along.

- Pierce

Anonymous said...

Pierce: Note first that I said I don't fault the SCHOOL SYSTEMS. I do fault the politicians who don't provide enough funding.

Second, most of the time I see funding for schools in return for soda machines in the lunchroom. I've never heard of a case of the Coca-Cola company influencing the curriculum.

- Ben

Jeff said...

Apparently, I didn't make clear the first time around that I favor the ban. Let me do that now. What I'm saying is that this policy is only a first step - we need to do a lot more if we're going to make a dent in the problem. Thus, I'm skeptical that the ban, by itself, will do much.

Ben - as for corporate dollars influencing the curriculum, it's coming awful close now. Remember the infamous case of the Evans, GA teenager that was suspended for school for wearing a Pepsi T-shirt on his school's "Team Up With Coke" day. And corporate advertisements are beginning to infiltrate, among other things, math problems. Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation contains a pretty well-researched exposé of the effects of corporate dollars in schools (incidentally, this is where I got the title for the post).

Of course, Pierce, as long as right-wing nuts continue to oppose all tax increases, school districts aren't going to get more funding. That's my reservation - is it really better to sacrifice the quality of public education than to give kids a good education brought to you by ExxonMobilTimeWarnerIBMSony?