Companies get fat off the fat of children

Posted: July 19, 2010

WHEN FIRST LADY Michelle Obama spoke to the NAACP convention about childhood diabetes last week, it was clear how serious she considers the threat.

"We are living today in a time where we're decades beyond slavery, we are decades beyond Jim Crow, when one of the greatest risks to our children's future is their own health," she said.

It's politically provocative, maybe even unwise, to present the issue of childhood obesity in racial terms. It's also true that, like almost every problem in this country - unemployment, inadequate health care and bad schools, among others - it hits African Americans the hardest. Black kids are far more likely than white kids to be obese and nearly half are expected to develop diabetes - which, while manageable, is a life sentence to a disease that can lead to blindness, amputations, heart disease and early death. The first lady's assertion that childhood obesity is as great a risk to African Americans as HIV/AIDS and youth violence may be shocking, but it's also true.

It's about the nation's health and the health of the economy - an issue worthy of a complex and far-reaching national action plan called "Let's Move," which was unveiled in May.

(We're seeing some of it here in Philadelphia: Among other programs, federal stimulus money will fund 100 mini-grants to help "corner stores" carry more fruits and vegetables and so provide healthier eating choices for many Philadelphia kids who visit them before or after school. A $900,000 stimulus grant will expand the innovative Agatston Urban Nutrition Initiative, a University of Pennsylvania program in 20 public schools that uses paid student interns to work in summer and after-school nutrition projects, including eight now-growing gardens.)

When she spoke to the NAACP, Michelle Obama didn't shy away from focusing on parental responsibility for what goes into their kids' mouths. But parental authority has to face an onslaught that can easily undermine it: the $1 billion a year spent on marketing junk food to kids.

News on that front is disheartening: A working group of several federal agencies under the leadership of the Federal Trade Commission has been working since December on a set of voluntary standards for marketing to children that would limit advertising food that contain significant amounts of sugar, sodium and saturated fat. The FTC was supposed to deliver a report to Congress last week. A draft of the guidelines - reportedly signed off on by most agencies - showed up in the press last week, and looked substantive.

Then, a few days later, the Wall Street Journal reported that the guidelines had been delayed indefinitely. It quoted an industry representative as saying the standards were too strict. For example, General Mills wouldn't be able to hawk even Cheerios to kids because it has more salt than the standards allow.

Dare we ask why any food or beverage is marketed to kids, especially ones young enough to be influenced by cartoon characters selling them? Kids aren't capable of determining whether a food is healthy. The only reason to advertise to them is so they'll nag their parents to buy it.

These were voluntary guidelines, mind you. No regulations would prevent the food companies from going ahead with their ads - they just wouldn't look like the champions of children's health that they like to portray themselves.

Michelle Obama is working to impress everyone with just how serious is the threat of childhood obesity and why we have to act now.

It's a shame that some food companies are getting fat enticing children rather than aiding in the cause. *

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