Would Education and “Inoculation” Keep Kids in the Cafeteria — and Away From the Food Trucks?

Blogger Alissa of The Simply Wholesome Kitchen  (she of the excellent pumpkin muffins) last week posted on TLT’s Facebook page an article from the New York Times which she knew would be of interest to me.  It describes how students at a high school in California are spurning the healthier offerings in their school cafeteria for the junk food offered by several food trucks that park on campus each day:

For $3.50, Edgar, a sophomore, purchased a bag of Hot Cheetos, a can of Coca-Cola and a package of Airheads Xtremes candy.

In the school cafeteria, the menu included a chicken sandwich with roasted potatoes or a veggie burger with garlic fries for $3.25. While there were chips for sale, they were Baked Lay’s.

None of those options appealed to Edgar, who buys his daily lunch from the snack food trucks that park during lunchtime just down the street from the school.

“They don’t have good food over there,” he said of the school cafeteria. “They have, like, fruits and vegetables.”

The article says that concerned residents are seeking to create a 1,500 foot protective zone around the school in which food trucks would be barred (a similar ordinance was passed in San Francisco) but one wonders, based on a student quoted in the story, just how effective it would be:

“It’s not going to do much,” said Nathan Estrada, 15, a sophomore, who had a sandwich from home for lunch, but was buying Hot Cheetos as a snack for later. “We will just walk over there.”

For someone like me, actively involved in trying to improve school food in my own district, stories like this are incredibly dispiriting but not at all surprising.  I’ve seen first hand when my district tries to clean up its act only to have students look at the unfamiliar food and proclaim — often without even trying it — “That’s nasty!”

Again and again I come back to the (perhaps obvious) conclusion that the most effective weapon in our arsenal against childhood obesity  is education, plain and simple.   Because no matter how much we improve school food, no matter if we tax soda and subsidize fruits and vegetables, it seems to me that we will always live in a food environment in which junk food and fast food are readily available, relatively cheap — and, above all, precisely geared to satisfy our primal cravings for salt, fat and sugar.  It will always be very hard for many people, and especially kids, to resist.

But children armed with knowledge can make better choices.  Despite all my complaints about last season’s “Food Revolution” show, I applauded Jamie Oliver’s efforts to teach the kids at West Adams High that eating junk food on a daily basis is not without consequences.  You may remember how he offered students an array of snacks, everything from a large cup of soda to an orange to a piece of pizza.  After the kids chose and ate their snack, he explained the concept of daily caloric needs and how just a month or two of poor choices could result in weight gain, and he strapped weighted backpacks on them to show what that gain would actually feel like.  He then sent the kids around the school track to burn off whatever snack they chose:  e.g., those who ate an orange (62 calories) only walked three laps while those who ate a chocolate bar (220 calories) had to walk eleven laps.

Exercises like Jamie Oliver’s teach kids in a visceral way that a steady diet of fried Cheetos and soda will most certainly affect weight and ultimate health.  And obesity aside, we also need to teach children exactly what happens to a body that is deprived of nutrients on a long term basis, because as I note frequently on this blog, even thin (and therefore seemingly “healthy”) children might well be undernourished  if they subsist solely on a highly processed, refined-carb-heavy diet.

I’m also still a proponent of the idea I posited in my essay for the Slate anti-childhood-obesity Hive, which is using public health messages to make junk food just as “uncool” as tobacco now is for many kids.  As I wrote there:

But finally, and most importantly, we need to invest children with a sense of ownership of this issue.  Without this piece of the puzzle, I fear that any educational efforts fall on deaf ears.  One solution is a widespread, well-funded public health campaign to inoculate kids against the forces that lead to unhealthful eating, akin to that used to discourage teen smoking.  Kids generally don’t like having someone try to pull the wool over their eyes, so just as we’ve made them savvy about the tobacco industry’s insidious techniques to get them to use cigarettes, we need to show kids that the food industry is, in a very direct way, making money at the expense of their own health.

So, what do you think about all this?  Am I putting too much faith in nutrition education?  Are the societal forces that lead us toward obesity just too strong to counter with classroom lessons and public health ads?  If so, what hope to we have in reversing the present trend?


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