3.21.2015

Food Issues Book Club: Appetite for Profit, Chapter 10

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Appetite for Profit, Chapter 10: Battling Big Food in Schools

Summary:

The food industry has successfully blocked every effort to regulate its sale of foods to children in schools.*  Maintaining sales in schools serves a number of purposes beyond keeping the revenue:
  1. building brand loyalty starting at a young age;
  2. improving image by "promoting the myth of corporate philanthropy"; and
  3. avoiding the potential harm to reputation that may occur if their products were to be banned from schools.
Junk food is pervasive in schools at all levels, and is essentially unfettered.  These foods, sold in vending machines and at other easy access points, compete with the federally regulated school lunch program.  The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has determined that approximately 75% of such "competitive" offerings are of poor nutritional value.

Public schools in need of funds often enter "pouring rights" contracts with major beverage makers such as Coke and Pepsi.  These contracts give companies a monopoly on the products sold in a school, and also create opportunities for advertisement within the school and at extracurricular activities such as sporting events.  What's worse, the amount of money a school receives for the deal is often dependent on how much soda it sells - schools are thus incentiveized to sell more soda to students.  Despite popular support, state bills to limit such access usually fail due to heavy industry interference.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) is notorious for fighting bills that limit junk food in schools.  Coca-Cola, though, takes the cake.  While other companies prefer to use front groups as its spokespeople, Coke has no qualms with standing front and center against any regulation that could reduce its sales, even to children.  For example, in Louisiana in 2005 Coke's lobbyist managed to change a bill aimed at completely removing sodas from schools, to one that required only 50% of Coke's in-school offerings to be "healthy."

Coke and other such corporations trumpet the ethic of "choice" - but whose choice is being respected in schools with exclusive pouring rights?  These contracts by their very nature exclude choice.  The industry claims that such contracts are a great source of funding for struggling school districts, yet fail to mention that the vendors will see far more money from them than the schools will.  The money gained by either party also comes at the expense of children's health.

"Whenever you hear a multinational corporation stand up for the little guy, this should instantly make you suspicious... Instead of asking what products Coca-Cola can sell that would pass nutrition muster, we should ask how we can properly fund public education so that we don't need Coca-Cola."

*Federal regulations have since been enacted, but are ineffective.

Discussion:

When I was in school, there were no advertisements that I can recall.   What I do remember is that I could get the "normal" (aka gross) school lunch for a dollar and some change, OR I could get the good stuff (pizza, nachos, and so on) for twice or more money.  Despite the fact that I was raised by a New Orleanian mother who put a hot meal on the dinner table every single night and refused to buy sweetened cereals or sodas, and the fact that I did not set foot into a fast food restaurant until I was in middle school, I fell into some very bad eating habits in high school.  We did have vending machines, but the idea of eating food out of a vending machine was so foreign to me that I never approached them.  Nevertheless, for the better part of 11th and 12th grades, my breakfast was a Coke and a cigarette and lunch was two chocolate milks and a honey bun.  My point here is that parents can do their damnedest to set a good example at home, but kids are affected by the world around them in ways that parents can't control.

This is part of why I find the various farm-to-school programs popping up around New Orleans so exciting.  Despite what parents are (or are not) able to provide at home, students at all five FirstLine Schools (Arthur Ashe, John Dibert, Samuel J. Green, Langston Hughes, and Joseph S. Clark), for instance, are exposed to the Edible Schoolyard program.  It allows kids to grow and eat their own food - an experience that many kids who grow up in cities know nothing about.  There are approximately one million terrible things about New Orleans' new all-charter-school landscape, but at least some of the schools are working toward getting food right.

Other farm-to-school programs around town include Sankofa NOLA's HEAL program working with students at Arise Academy, and the Cooking Up Healthy Options and Portions (CHOP) program run by Ochsner Health Services.  There are still many, many kids in New Orleans who have no access to fresh food at home or at school.  And yes, schools in Nola (and everywhere else) are basically busting at the seams with junk food and soft drinks (we call them cold drinks though).  We MUST work harder to feed our children well.  As we discussed last month, a hungry child cannot learn.

Of course, we're not alone.  Hopefully you know what ConAgra is (hint: their products are found in a supposed 99% of American households)... but perhaps it will be a big surprise to you, as it was to me, that it hosts branded events at schools.  The only word I can think of for this is shameless.  But then, there's nothing new about shameless behavior when it comes to food companies and kids.  If this is a topic of particular interest to you, make sure to check out the next blog post: kids junk food marketing!


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