The Kansas State Board of Education voted to implement wellness policy guidelines that will ban sugary sodas and candy from vending machines at schools across Kansas. The definitions for fat, sugar and calorie content are of course more detailed. But public schools will have to meet “advanced” levels this August, and “exemplary” levels by August 2011. For example, milk must have less than 360 calories this fall, and only low fat or skim milk is allowed by 2011.
Kansas fell in line with some other states that are condemning specific foods for the surge in childhood obesity. The recent report “Mission: Readiness” found that 27 percent of Americans age 17–24 are too overweight to serve in the military. But this strategy is simplistic and can lead to even worse regulations.
This movement comes in the shadow of the tobacco regulations, and bases its logic on the health care costs we all have to pay. But tobacco has no nutritional value. Sugars and fats are food and even in their most “junk food” form have caloric value.
In paying attention to the 27 percent of kids who are overweight, we ignore the over one percent who are undernourished. For kids with allergies to gluten, nuts, etc., some of the so-called "junk food" is an important and perhaps critical source of calories.
Why stop at sugar content? Salt is implicated in blood pressure problems. Cholesterol, a meat-only chemical, clogs many folks’ arteries so how about taxing or regulating meat? Since they cause health care costs we all pay for, they too are valid candidates for regulation. New York banned most trans fats in restaurants in 2006. Expansion of regulations is not just hypothetical.
Weight is based on a formula of food calories in versus calories burned by exercise. Several Board members emphasized the need to get schoolchildren more exercise, from recess activity to requiring physical education. There is plenty of evidence for this generation of students being far more sedentary. A return to PE is unlikely to make up for the substantial decrease in rural and other outdoor experiences.
Soda has been around for nearly a century. But the rise in childhood obesity has accelerated in the last 15 years, the time kids began sitting down to play electronics. Ironically, the vending machines in the hallway are taking the fall for the computers, videogames and cell phones. The Kaiser Family Foundation study GenerationM3 found American kids are on electronics and computers for over 9 hours a day! Much of that sit-down inactivity is in the classroom. And if you count on recess for physical activity, it may be nothing more than students standing around texting each other.
The final argument was that “we want our children to learn to make good food decisions.” But just how does eliminating their choices allow them to learn to make “good decisions”? While school is in session, we have made their decision for them.
Three Board members voted against food censorship. One considered it a local school decision. Another pointed out it was a feel-good motion and students would buy even more sodas and chips as soon as they left the school grounds. And a third observed that the policy would have a “very minimal impact on obesity” and that the real solution was restoring physical activity. All correct.
The major cause of childhood obesity—inactivity for the long hours spent with computers, videogames, and cell phones—got off free.