School Food and Twinkies
Air time: Wednesday August 20, 2003 “Morning Edition”
Some students will be returning to school this fall to find the soda and snack vending machines have been removed. With recent surveys revealing that sixty percent of adult Americans are overweight, the public debate over taxing twinkies and forbidding fat foods has now extended into the schools where more and more students are outgrowing their desks.
Some of the furor has been generated by attorneys, who might otherwise chase ambulances, remembering the millions made in tobacco litigation. Contending that fast food and soft drinks are no different from tobacco, some lawyers are portraying large food corporations as criminals marketing addictive food to helpless children. Some animal rights organizations have joined the debate, seeing an opportunity to mandate diets and push vegetarianism to captive schoolchildren. And some beleaguered parents see control of food at school as a legitimate last ditch effort when they failed to curb their child’s obesity at home.
But food is not tobacco. While no one ever died from lack of tobacco, people do die from lack of food. America does have undernourished children, both for socio-economic reasons and from conditions such as anorexia. Other children are limited in their food choices by allergies. And for children who gag on peas and lima beans, chips and fries can be a critical source of calories. But those proposing “sin taxes” on fat foods to discourage overweight students are not offering food subsidies for the anorexic and undernourished students. Parents who deal with teenagers’ eating habits know that “fries bad, fruit good” is simple-minded and impossible to enforce in home or school.
Nor does science support weight gain being simply a matter of choice and opportunity. There is a heavy genetic factor to both obesity and the complication of diabetes. Two people can eat the same amount of food; the one with a low metabolism will add weight while the individual with a higher metabolism will not. And some folks are hypercellular; to stay at a “normal” weight, they would have to maintain a state of starvation.
Nutritional science clearly points out that there are two factors in weight: food calories in, and calories out as exercise. While everyone is focusing on the school cafeteria and vending machines, is anyone proposing a tax on TV tubes and computer terminals? Noooo! Shifting students away from vegetating in front of video screens to requiring more physical education activities and participatory sports will go much farther than adding taxes to calories that some students need in order to live.
Censorship, by outright removal of snacks and sodas, is contradictory to the educational function of a school. It teaches students the wrong way to handle decision-making: tyrannical decisions from the top, and no personal responsibility. Instead, the addition of vending machines offering healthy food choices would further the nutritional education that should be occurring in home economics and biology classes.
With apologies to the NRA for paraphrasing their motto: “You can have my Twinkie when you pry it from my cold, dead hand.”