US schools in war on junk food

Based on an article in The Daily Telegraph, May 21, 2002.

AMERICA is starting to reconsider the junk food culture which has become part of its national identity. The two biggest states, California and Texas, are proposing to ban snacks and soft drinks from school cafeterias as Congress prepares to consider the Obesity Prevention and Treatment Bill. Other legislation at state and federal levels is being prepared. The IRS (Internal Revenue Service) recently made the decision to link weight loss to tax breaks. In a country where 60 per cent of the adult population is overweight, many people feel these changes are long overdue.


These moves, however, have set the scene for conflict with the giant companies whose profits depend on the national appetite for fast food.

They argue that it is lack of exercise rather than a diet of cheeseburgers and sodas which is to blame for the three-fold increase in child obesity in the past 30 years. The fast-food companies dwarf pro-nutrition groups in terms of resources and have huge clout on Capitol Hill, but they are also very sensitive to their public image. That is the real way change is being brought about.


A number of polemical popular books have addressed the social and nutritional implications of the way giant food conglomerates market junk food. It is the marketing of big-brand junk foods to school-age children which, for most nutritionists, remains the most powerful single factor affecting the country's future health. PepsiCo, for example, has stated explicitly that its strategy is to expand soft drink consumption among children aged six to 11.


Sponsorship deals with food companies are now worth an estimated $750 million (536 million) annually to American schools. The money often allows them to buy much-needed sporting and computer facilities but comes with strings attached. Fast food company say they are merely making their products available more widely. "Pouring rights" contracts with soft-drink makers specify numbers and placements of vending machines in schools, often tying sponsorship levels to sales quotas.


Fast food companies, meanwhile, operate concessions in an increasing number of school cafeterias. Elementary schools hold themed days for Pizza Hut and McDonalds; Taco Bell products are sold in 4,500 schools. Academic independence, say many nutritionists, is under threat. In March 1998, a high school student in Georgia became a cause celebre when he was suspended for wearing a Pepsi T-shirt at his school's "Coke in Education Day".


Corporate sponsorship also extends to teaching materials such as text books. A 1998 survey by the Consumers' Union concluded that 80 per cent of such materials were biased in ways which promoted the sponsors' views or products.


Nutritionists and public health campaigners say the incursion of junk food into America's public schools markets "empty calories" irresponsibly to a captive audience and contributes directly to the obesity pandemic which taxes the health care system to the limits. Their opponents cast them as nags and busybodies determined to interfere with freedom of choice.


But those on both sides of the debate seem to agree on one thing: the fight against Big Food in America looks set to be for the beginning of this century what the fight against Big Tobacco was at the end of the last.