More Misguided Food Fascism

Posted on July 1, 2013


If policymakers were serious about tackling childhood obesity, they would fund our schools appropriately and get rid of the snack machines entirely.

Here we go:  the USDA has for the first time issued restrictions on what sorts of snacks schools can sell,  according to Mary Claire Jalonick and Connie Cass for the Associated Press.  Vending machines full of sugary sodas, candy bars and cookies will soon be re-stocked with USDA-approved “healthy” choices like fruit juices, diet sodas, granola bars and low-fat tortilla chips, say the authors.

But wait a minute – are these things really any better for us than a sugary soda or a chocolate bar?

As we have written previously, fruit juices have just as many calories, if not more, than sodas.  They’re natural… except for the artificial colors and preservatives… but “natural” does not necessarily mean any less sugar or calories.  Diet sodas and sports drinks have long been controversial for their use of aspartame or other artificial sweeteners:  some suspect that artificial sweeteners tamper with satiety mechanisms in the brain, causing more cravings and increasing one’s overall appetite, while others point to other, more direct negative effects on health, at least for some consumers.  Granola bars, at 190 calories a pop, are not much better than, say, a 200-calorie Mr. Goodbar in dietary terms.  As for reduced-fat tortilla chips, compare to regular tortilla chips:  per serving, they save only about 15 calories and 1% of the daily saturated fat allowance, while increasing carbohydrate intake and more than doubling sodium intake.

What this all comes down to is this:  you can swap out one mass-produced, highly processed snack food for another, but it won’t solve the overall problem of poor nutrition.  Pick your poison, I guess.

While I think trying to limit or dictate our food choices is ineffective at best (yeah, Mayor Bloomberg, I’m talking to you), I have long wondered why we have vending machines or snack stands in schools at all.  Somehow, in my childhood years, I attended six different schools without ever, even in high school, having access to a vending machine.  The only food in most of the schools I attended was what the students brought with them, and we were only allowed to eat that food at lunch.  There was no snacking, no eating or drinking in class or between classes (who had the time?), except for the water fountains in the hallways.  In the only school I attended that actually sold a school lunch, the only “snacks” or sweets that were available were part of that school lunch, and they were pretty limited (in both size and appeal).

So where did all these snack stands and vending machines come from?  They made their way into today’s schools as a revenue-raising measure, not in response to hungry kids clamoring for snacks, but rather to the pitiful  budgets that our educators have to operate with.  As Tom Philpott wrote for Mother Jones last year, most schools have, for instance, sold exclusive “pouring rights” to Coke or Pepsi for big bucks starting in the 1990s.  While those big bucks have supplemented measly school budgets with much-needed funds for things like field trips or sports team uniforms, there also is a documented correlation between the existence of these contracts and student obesity levels.

So long as school snack and beverage sales are really just a sneaky way to get students to fund part of their own education (beyond taxes, that is), that correlation with bigger waistlines will continue to exist, and changing up the snack menu isn’t going to help much.   I guarantee that injudicious consumption of granola and fruit juice can be just as fattening as injudicious consumption of chocolate and sodas.

If policymakers really want to tackle the childhood obesity problem, they should properly fund our schools so they don’t need to peddle snacks and beverages to kids.   It’s kind of hard to get fat from eating food that isn’t there.

Related articles:

More Bad Science Trying to Promote Panic Over Sodas

Fat Taxes Don’t Work

Prevent Childhood Injuries and Reduce Obesity: Sit At a Table to Eat. Simple as That.

All You Do-Gooders on the Bloomberg Bandwagon: Food Bans Have No Place in a Free Country

Hands Off My Sodas, Nanny Government!