Dislodging Schools’ Junk Food Curricula

“If we want to eat sugar, why do you care?”

The kids are relentless.  My friend, a first grade teacher, offers them fruits and vegetables, but this stirs up more rebellion.

“Why not Coke!?” one of them persists.

“Yeah,” another chimes in, “it’s my body, not yours!”

When she tells the story, the knee-jerk libertarian in me leaps to the first graders’ side.  Who is my friend to stop them if they want soda and doughnuts for snack?

“I’m not permanently ‘stopping’ them,” she explains, “but as long as they’re under my purview, I won’t use my power to indulge their unhealthy habits.  This is a school, not a food court in a shopping mall.”  She points out that Americans snack twice as much as they did 20 years ago, and that the childhood obesity rate, now hovering at a crisis level of 33 percent, leaves many of her students at risk of high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and cardiovascular disease.

When determining what foods to offer students in school, educational administrators could learn a lot from my friend simply by cutting out junk food.  Yes, we want to teach children how to make healthy decisions in light of unhealthy alternatives.  And yes, children will still eat Oreos at home even if they become unavailable for purchase at school.  However, we do not owe students “the mere option” of buying junk food in the cafeteria for the sake of teaching them “how to make decisions.”  When you go to a low-income neighborhood filled with fast food restaurants frying up junky, fatty, sugary, and salty food on every street corner, you realize the public health danger and injustice of giving children more opportunities to eat junk in places of public education.

And yet, some insist, even with Burger King billboards and “I’m Lovin’ It” sponsorships all around us, it’s ultimately the government’s duty in a free society to give students the choice to buy Frito-Lay’s Wow Potato Chips in the lunch line.  Interesting.  Should we also let 18-year-old high school seniors buy cigarettes in the cafeteria?  If it’s their right to increase their risk of diabetes and heart failure with nasty, school-endorsed, mass-processed snacks, isn’t it also their right to purchase carcinogenic arsenic-laced white rolls on school premises?

Er… no.  The fact that some kids smoke doesn’t mean that everyone, much less a public school, must accommodate their lust for tobacco.  For the same reason that my freedom to smoke would not preclude stores’ freedom to exclude my beloved poison from their aisles, food-providing schools have every right to remove caloric trans fats from their lunch menus and vending machines.

I’ll go a bit further—it’s not just the right of schools to stop dispensing junk food, but in fact, a civic obligation.  While not entirely capable of regulating activity outside their gates, good schools at least try to channel their students into permanent lifestyles of intellectual curiosity, civility, and wholesome eating.  By disallowing the use of taxpayer dollars to promote habitual consumption of junk foods, public schools could take a huge step forward in improving the health of young Americans.

Junk food merits removal from schools because its vast consumption intensifies poverty’s social impediments.  Impoverishment eats away at its victims’ health, and we, while simultaneously struggling for greater economic fairness, can disrupt prevailing cycles of thoughtless junk eating.  On the frontlines of this consciousness shift, schools must affirmatively combat poverty’s obesity-producing conditions of restricted outlets to organized sports, dilapidated playground equipment in poor areas’ parks, overexposure to fast food, and underexposure to farmers’ markets and grocery stores in destitute communities.  Schools’ refusal to be another venue for unsound dieting would foster a culture of physical health, especially among students who rely on school offerings for daily sustenance.

We should also take issue with junk food in public schools because it means that tax revenue is facilitating schools’ contracts with food’s corporate mega-giants.  Surely there’s a local farmer who’d rise to the occasion if, by some miracle, our schools needed a new source of food once they stopped buying Ruffles potato chips in bulk.  80 percent of the United States’ farms are small.  They are all over the country and looking for business.  Instead of lining the pockets of Kellogg executives, we should tap into the resources of those 1.6 million small farms, many of which are organic and family-owned.  Some would call it a “positive boycott” – we’re not bent on bankrupting Kellogg, but rather on enriching the little farms that offer healthier options.

Amid a last-ditch attempt to defend the status quo, we’ll see the label “nanny state” plastered on our proposed change.  The epithet is misplaced here, for we have no interest in stopping individual citizens from entering contracts with willing private vendors.  We are instead determined to alter the behavior of the “nannies” themselves – public schools—by condemning their dealings with junk food marketers.  As long as schools are in the business of offering their students food, they have to first buy it from somebody, and thus hint at an exclusive definition of “wise eating.”  That hint should gear children towards nutrition.

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