August 11th, 2005

Junk Food Nation: Who's to Blame for Childhood Obesity?

By Gary Ruskin and Juliet Schor
The Nation

In recent months the major food companies have been trying hard to convince Americans that they feel the pain of our expanding waistlines, especially when it comes to kids. Kraft announced it would no longer market Oreos to younger children, McDonald’s promoted itself as a salad producer and Coca-Cola said it won’t advertise to kids under 12. But behind the scenes it’s hardball as usual, with the junk food giants pushing the Bush Administration to defend their interests. The recent conflict over what America eats, and the way the government promotes food, is a disturbing example of how in Bush’s America corporate interests trump public health, public opinion and plain old common sense.

The latest salvo in the war on added sugar and fat came July 14- 15, when the Federal Trade Commission held hearings on childhood obesity and food marketing. Despite the fanfare, industry had no cause for concern; FTC chair Deborah Majoras had declared beforehand that the commission will do absolutely nothing to stop the rising flood of junk food advertising to children. In June the Department of Agriculture denied a request from our group Commercial Alert to enforce existing rules forbidding mealtime sales in school cafeterias of “foods of minimal nutritional value"--i.e., junk foods and soda pop. The department admitted that it didn’t know whether schools are complying with the rules, but, frankly, it doesn’t give a damn. “At this time, we do not intend to undertake the activities or measures recommended in your petition,” wrote Stanley Garnett, head of the USDA’s Child Nutrition Division.

Conflict about junk food has intensified since late 2001, when a Surgeon General’s report called obesity an “epidemic.” Since that time, the White House has repeatedly weighed in on the side of Big Food. It worked hard to weaken the World Health Organization’s global anti-obesity strategy and went so far as to question the scientific basis for “the linking of fruit and vegetable consumption to decreased risk of obesity and diabetes.” Former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson--then our nation’s top public-health officer--even told members of the Grocery Manufacturers Association to “‘go on the offensive’ against critics blaming the food industry for obesity,” according to a November 12, 2002, GMA news release.

Last year, during the reauthorization of the children’s nutrition programs, Republican Senator Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois attempted to insulate the government’s nutrition guidelines from the intense industry pressure that has warped the process to date. He proposed a modest amendment to move the guidelines from the USDA to the comparatively more independent Institute of Medicine. The food industry, alarmed about the switch, secured a number of meetings at the White House to get it to exert pressure on Fitzgerald. One irony of this fight was that the key industry lobbying came from the American Dietetic Association, described by one Congressional staffer as a “front for the food groups.” Fitzgerald held firm but didn’t succeed in enacting his amendment before he left Congress last year.

By that time the industry’s lobbying effort had borne fruit, or perhaps more accurately, unhealthy alternatives to fruit. The new federal guidelines no longer contain a recommendation for sugar intake, although they do tell people to eat foods with few added sugars. The redesigned icon for the guidelines, created by a company that does extensive work for the junk food industry, shows no food, only a person climbing stairs.

Growing industry influence is also apparent at the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. What companies has the government invited to be partners with the council’s Challenge program? Coca-Cola, Burger King, General Mills, Pepsico and other blue chip members of the “obesity lobby.” In January the council’s chair, former NFL star Lynn Swann, took money to appear at a public relations event for the National Automatic Merchandising Association, a vending machine trade group activists have been battling on in-school sales of junk food.

Not a lot of subtlety is required to understand what’s driving Administration policy. It’s large infusions of cash. In 2004 “Rangers,” who bundled at least $200,000 each to the Bush/Cheney campaign, included Barclay Resler, vice president for government and public affairs at Coca-Cola; Robert Leebern Jr., president of federal affairs at Troutman Sanders PAG, lobbyist for Coca-Cola; Richard Hohlt of Hohlt & Co., lobbyist for Altria, which owns about 85 percent of Kraft foods; and Jos “Pepe” Fanjul, president, vice chairman and COO of Florida Crystals Corp., one of the nation’s major sugar producers. Hundred-thousand-dollar men include Kirk Blalock and Marc Lampkin, both Coke lobbyists, and Joe Weller, chairman and CEO, Nestle USA. Altria also gave $250,000 to Bush’s inauguration this year, and Coke and Pepsi gave $100,000 each. These gifts are in addition to substantial sums given during the 2000 campaign.

For their money, the industry has been able to buy into a strategy on obesity and food marketing that mirrors the approach taken by Big Tobacco. That’s hardly a surprise, given that some of the same companies and personnel are involved: Junk food giants Kraft and Nabisco are both majority-owned by tobacco producer Philip Morris, now renamed Altria. Similarity number one is the denial that the problem (obesity) is caused by the product (junk food). Instead, lack of exercise is fingered as the culprit, which is why McDonald’s, Pepsi, Coke and others have been handing out pedometers, funding fitness centers and prodding kids to move around. When the childhood obesity issue first burst on the scene, HHS and the Centers for Disease Control funded a bizarre ad campaign called Verb, whose ostensible purpose was to get kids moving. This strategy has been evident in the halls of Congress as well. During child nutrition reauthorization hearings, the man some have called the Senator from Coca-Cola, Georgia’s Zell Miller, parroted industry talking points when he claimed that children are “obese not because of what they eat at lunchrooms in schools but because, frankly, they sit around on their duffs watching Eminem on MTV and playing video games.” And that, of course, is the fault not of food marketers but of parents. Miller’s office shut down a Senate Agriculture Committee staff discussion of a ban on soda pop in high schools by refreshing their memories that Coke is based in Georgia.

A related ploy is to deny the nutritional status of individual food groups, claiming that there are no “good” or “bad” foods, and that all that matters is balance. So, for example, when the Administration attacked the WHO’s global anti-obesity initiative, it criticized what it called the “unsubstantiated focus on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods.” Of course, if fruits and vegetables aren’t healthy, then Coke and chips aren’t unhealthy. While such a strategy is so preposterous as to be laughable, it is already having real effects. Less than a month after Cadbury Schweppes, the candy and soda company, gave a multimillion-dollar grant to the American Diabetes Association, the association’s chief medical and scientific officer claimed that sugar has nothing to do with diabetes, or with weight. Industry has also bankrolled front groups like the Center for Consumer Freedom, an increasingly influential Washington outfit that demonizes public-health advocates as the “food police” and promotes the industry point of view.

Meanwhile, public opinion is solidly behind more restrictions on junk food marketing aimed at children, especially in schools. A February Wall Street Journal poll found that 83 percent of American adults believe “public schools need to do a better job of limiting children’s access to unhealthy foods like snack foods, sugary soft drinks and fast food.” Two bills recently introduced in Congress, Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy’s Prevention of Childhood Obesity Act and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin’s Healthy Lifestyles and Prevention (HeLP) America Act, both place significant restrictions on the ability of junk food producers to market in schools.

Interestingly, this is a crossover issue between red and blue states. Concern about obesity and excessive junk food marketing to kids is shared by people across the political spectrum, and some conservatives, such as Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs and the Eagle Forum’s Phyllis Schlafly, as well as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, have argued for restricting junk food marketing to children. This may be one of the reasons New York Senator Hillary Clinton has once again become vocal on the topic of marketing to children, although Senator Clinton has called not for government intervention but merely for industry self-regulation, requesting that the companies “be more responsible about the effect they are having"--exactly the policy the industry wants.

A vigorous government response would clearly garner the sympathy of the majority of Americans. The growing chasm between what the public wants and the Administration’s protection of the profits of Big Food is a powerful example of the decline of democracy in this country. Let them eat chips!

Comments

  1. Posted by Pat on August 12th, 2005

    Parents are responsible for their fat kids. Who pays for the happy meals and buckets of soda? 

  2. Posted by jim on August 16th, 2005

    Parents buy the food their children eat.  They are the ones that need to show the self control.  Just because a kid sees a commercial doesn’t mean mommy and daddy have to run out and buy that snack for them.  How about an article on how ignorant and completely lacking in common sense most parents are these days.

  3. Posted by lani on August 17th, 2005

    I agree. If the parents want their kids to lose wight, dont buy them all the junk food, coks, and Macdonalds to their hearts content. IF they stop feeding their kids up, they wouldnt be so fat. SImple as that. ( am not American By the Way ^^)

  4. Posted by kellie on August 17th, 2005

    I wonder if the people who posted the last messages actually have young kids.  I have three under age 8 and they only watch PBS (virtually add-free, except for a sponsorship by 60-second cinnabuns.) I instantly knew when the makers of said cinnabuns began sponsoring one of their favorite shows because my five year old began nagging me for them every day.  The nag factor is what marketers count on to break down the well-meaning intentions of tired parents.  Not surprisingly, my kids have never once asked for Lunchables, for example, making my job as a parent much easier.  Bottom line, don’t underestimate the built-in nag factor of glitzy ads.  The advertisers who invest millions certainly don’t!

  5. Posted by Ed on August 18th, 2005

    The overbearing advertising aimed at both children and adults have a Pavlovian effect on viewers.  If agencies are able to connect with children at an early age, they are able to create lifelong consumers through the methodic conditioning of malleable minds.  It is the parents that have been molded by these very same commercials their whole lives who buy the products for the kids.  Its a troubling cycle that is morally wrong (in that products that are known to be hazardous to one’s health are marketed to us) and should be stopped.

  6. Posted by Amel -17 year old on August 28th, 2005

    The Institue of Medicine says, “It is unreasonable to expect that people will change their behavior easily when so many forces in the social, cultural and physical environment conspire against such change.” This became evident to me recently, when I went to the store with MY OWN money and thought I was going to “shop healthy”.  It cost twice as much for the low calorie, low fat choices.  Not to mention the fact that a bag of fatty potato chips was cheaper than an apple or orange.  Just some FOOD FOR THOUGHT.

  7. Posted by Kay on September 16th, 2005

    Why should the kids even be by the tv. all the time.... Maybe they wouldnt be nagging you about all that stuff if they were outside exercising instead of infront of the Tv. all day. Limit there tv. time and how much they eat and make them go outside and play. Buy them a trampoline.... I am a kid and I think I would rather be outside all the time instead of inside and getting fat! 

  8. Posted by Claire on September 26th, 2005

    Blaming the parents is too easy. What about when the parents aren’t around - like at school? So many schools have allowed junk food in the cafeterias and parents have lost control. It isn’t so easy to command that kids not buy junk. Anybody who knows kids, knows they will buy what they want without mom and dad around. Kids won’t see food in the same way as sex. There are no taboos about food, so it won’t seem as if they are disobeying. People need to get real - you are part of the problem if you persist in this denial.  Individual parents are no match against Big Food. Especially when our President is on their side. 

  9. Posted by on September 30th, 2005

    what do kids eat at schools?

  10. Posted by Rachel on October 9th, 2005

    The article says that the kids are buying the junk food themselves.  Why are kids taking money to school to begin with?  Why are parents giving money everyday to young children?  Are these the 2 career families where both parents"have" to work?  Maybe if not so much was spent on videos, fast-food, and spending money for the whole family, then one parent could be home, making their kids’ meals, and supervising spending, nutrition, outside influences, etc. 

  11. Posted by Jasmine on October 13th, 2005

    I am doing a report for school on Child Obesity. If anyone has an extra information, I’d really appreciate. Also, I’d like to have your permission on using some of your quote’s that you posted on this site. Thanks you, Jasmine.

  12. Posted by Amanda on October 13th, 2005

    I agree with some of you. If you dont want your kids having junk food, dont buy it for them! I myself have learned from this, since i still live with my parents, and they buy all the food. I see commercials with deliscious looking food, but my mom wants to keep me healthy, so she just doesnt buy it for me!  Parents also have some control on what their kids eat at schools. They can make the lunch for them if they think the menu is unacceptable, as in sodas and donuts. I am also doing a report on this (ban of junk food in schools) and would like any quotes and info that i can get.

  13. Posted by Jasmine on October 13th, 2005

    I am doing a report for school on Child Obesity. If anyone has an extra information, I’d really appreciate. Also, I’d like to have your permission on using some of your quote’s that you posted on this site. Thanks you, Jasmine.

  14. Posted by Jasmine on October 13th, 2005

    I am doing a report for school on Child Obesity. If anyone has an extra information, I’d really appreciate. Also, I’d like to have your permission on using some of your quote’s that you posted on this site. Thanks you, Jasmine.

  15. Posted by Carin on October 13th, 2005

    I’m a junior in highschool, and I am doing a research report on child obesity....

    What do kids eat at school, you ask?

    Well, our schoolboard has changed our breakfasts and lunches completely. We have had the sizes of the food portions lessened, and our breads and juices have been alternated to more “healthy” choices - and a lower budget for our school.

    However, the school is sure selling their chips and cookies and ice creams like wild fire! (Which should come to no surprise to some of you.) We have a maine course line, a “Fiesta Grill” line (which serves nachos, tortillas, tacos, etc.) and an A la Carte line - which, ironically, serves only pizza and other “goodies.”

    Theses lines are opened every lunch period, every day. Thus, a student can choose to eat pizza every day, as he/she wishes. Hmm....

  16. Posted by Cindy Neesham on October 20th, 2005

    I don’t have junk food in my home, I don’t have sugar, I don’t have chips, and I seldom take my foster kids to fast food restaurants.  My problem is, visits with casa workers, visits with parents, visit with theapists, trips to the eye doctor, trips to the doctor, visits with social workers, classroom snacks ( which include sweets), they all have candy, sugar treats available.  It’s like fighting a losing battle.  Foster children are eligible for free breakfast and lunches, I choose to feed breakfast to my foster kids at home and pack lunches because for breakfast they have sugar sweetened cereal, cinnimon rolls, donuts, white bread, etc.  I have one child that weighted 100lbs in 1st grade.  what is wrong here, why is it a constant fight?

  17. Posted by Sarah on October 23rd, 2005

    I am doing a child obesity research paper, and would like to know if you have any extra wuotes that i may use?

  18. Posted by jess on November 1st, 2005

    well i am a school student and i am researching obesity for my high school assignment and i belive that it is disgusting that parennts can let their children eat like that, i am healthy fit and play lots of sport and i often feel sorry for obese and overweight children but now i know it is practically up to the parents because they are the ones supplying the food and money to by the food.

  19. Posted by yu567 on November 7th, 2005

    you should be allowed to have junk food at school

  20. Posted by Adam Richards on November 15th, 2005

    It is mostly parents responsibility for this “Epidemic” of child obesity. When you first get a child their mind is like a sponge, they soak up information and use it as theyre growing up. If you teach a kid good habbits as they’re growing up those habbits should always be there if you’re enforcing them still. Sure there is influential media making kids want to buy all of this junk food, but if you taught the kid well as a child then you should have no problem about it. Parents should limit what they buy and what their kids see and do. This un-winnable battle against junk food companies is rediculus and is passing the blame on the wrong people.

  21. Posted by emily on February 1st, 2006

    i am also doing a report on childhood obesity and if it has to do anything with the schools.... so if anyone can help me out that would be really appreciated, thanks

  22. Posted by Nikki La Tour on February 6th, 2006

    I am doing a speech on this for District Congress here in Indiana at my highschool… You can’t blame the parents of High School students, for the sheer fact that highschoolers choose their own meals. Younger children, on the other hand, when given money, choose the things that appeal to their taste buds. As a freshman in highschool, I am tempted
    to choose a less healthy option, but the resrictions I place upon myself keep me healthy. My little siblings are given money, and they come home with bags of chips, brownies, suckers.... some treats from random teachers. Whar we really need to do is reevaluate what we are feeding children in school. My siblings have had a combined total of15 cavities. Is this really what we want to do to our kids? Rot their teeth out?  make healthier decisions everywhere, not just at home.
    ~Nikki La Tour Grade 9

  23. Posted by jimmy on March 8th, 2006

    I am the fattest kid on campus and people love me. Everyone knows my name and they like to poke my belly and say “yipeee.” I love being fat! I blame myself because i just keep on eating!

  24. Posted by Justin on April 17th, 2006

    All of this comes down to a responsibility issue no matter who you are. Parent or Big Food. Parents have a responsibilty to ensure their child will make sound decisions on their own through parental guidance and education. When push comes to shove the decision lies with the individual, but the majority of influence and source of information will dictate the final outcome. As food companies and ad agencies develop marketing strategies their responsibility lies in informing public opinion rather than forming it. This would be the perfect situation, but the career quest for money has put children at home watching TV alone while their parents are working for food companies producing ads that target children watching TV alone at home.

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