Would Education and “Inoculation” Keep Kids in the Cafeteria — and Away From the Food Trucks?

Blogger Alissa of The Simply Wholesome Kitchen  (she of the excellent pumpkin muffins) last week posted on TLT’s Facebook page an article from the New York Times which she knew would be of interest to me.  It describes how students at a high school in California are spurning the healthier offerings in their school cafeteria for the junk food offered by several food trucks that park on campus each day:

For $3.50, Edgar, a sophomore, purchased a bag of Hot Cheetos, a can of Coca-Cola and a package of Airheads Xtremes candy.

In the school cafeteria, the menu included a chicken sandwich with roasted potatoes or a veggie burger with garlic fries for $3.25. While there were chips for sale, they were Baked Lay’s.

None of those options appealed to Edgar, who buys his daily lunch from the snack food trucks that park during lunchtime just down the street from the school.

“They don’t have good food over there,” he said of the school cafeteria. “They have, like, fruits and vegetables.”

The article says that concerned residents are seeking to create a 1,500 foot protective zone around the school in which food trucks would be barred (a similar ordinance was passed in San Francisco) but one wonders, based on a student quoted in the story, just how effective it would be:

“It’s not going to do much,” said Nathan Estrada, 15, a sophomore, who had a sandwich from home for lunch, but was buying Hot Cheetos as a snack for later. “We will just walk over there.”

For someone like me, actively involved in trying to improve school food in my own district, stories like this are incredibly dispiriting but not at all surprising.  I’ve seen first hand when my district tries to clean up its act only to have students look at the unfamiliar food and proclaim — often without even trying it — “That’s nasty!”

Again and again I come back to the (perhaps obvious) conclusion that the most effective weapon in our arsenal against childhood obesity  is education, plain and simple.   Because no matter how much we improve school food, no matter if we tax soda and subsidize fruits and vegetables, it seems to me that we will always live in a food environment in which junk food and fast food are readily available, relatively cheap — and, above all, precisely geared to satisfy our primal cravings for salt, fat and sugar.  It will always be very hard for many people, and especially kids, to resist.

But children armed with knowledge can make better choices.  Despite all my complaints about last season’s “Food Revolution” show, I applauded Jamie Oliver’s efforts to teach the kids at West Adams High that eating junk food on a daily basis is not without consequences.  You may remember how he offered students an array of snacks, everything from a large cup of soda to an orange to a piece of pizza.  After the kids chose and ate their snack, he explained the concept of daily caloric needs and how just a month or two of poor choices could result in weight gain, and he strapped weighted backpacks on them to show what that gain would actually feel like.  He then sent the kids around the school track to burn off whatever snack they chose:  e.g., those who ate an orange (62 calories) only walked three laps while those who ate a chocolate bar (220 calories) had to walk eleven laps.

Exercises like Jamie Oliver’s teach kids in a visceral way that a steady diet of fried Cheetos and soda will most certainly affect weight and ultimate health.  And obesity aside, we also need to teach children exactly what happens to a body that is deprived of nutrients on a long term basis, because as I note frequently on this blog, even thin (and therefore seemingly “healthy”) children might well be undernourished  if they subsist solely on a highly processed, refined-carb-heavy diet.

I’m also still a proponent of the idea I posited in my essay for the Slate anti-childhood-obesity Hive, which is using public health messages to make junk food just as “uncool” as tobacco now is for many kids.  As I wrote there:

But finally, and most importantly, we need to invest children with a sense of ownership of this issue.  Without this piece of the puzzle, I fear that any educational efforts fall on deaf ears.  One solution is a widespread, well-funded public health campaign to inoculate kids against the forces that lead to unhealthful eating, akin to that used to discourage teen smoking.  Kids generally don’t like having someone try to pull the wool over their eyes, so just as we’ve made them savvy about the tobacco industry’s insidious techniques to get them to use cigarettes, we need to show kids that the food industry is, in a very direct way, making money at the expense of their own health.

So, what do you think about all this?  Am I putting too much faith in nutrition education?  Are the societal forces that lead us toward obesity just too strong to counter with classroom lessons and public health ads?  If so, what hope to we have in reversing the present trend?


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  1. says

    You’re both right AND overly optimistic, I think. I have to admit, my reaction to the idea that if a protective zone were established, kids would just walk farther to get their junk food was…a mental shrug. Why? Oh, it’s not that I don’t care, certainly, but there IS a certain level of “We Can’t Control/Change/Fix Everything” that creeps into my consciousness when I think about issues like this. I do think that a protective zone should be established, because that’s the due diligence part of the equation; but just as we can’t rely on the schools to control what parents serve and allow in their own homes, we can’t rely on the schools to fully control what students eat during the day, either. I’ve never been one to say that if a family sends a lunch from home, we should be dictating to the nth degree what goes into that lunch — there IS a parental prerogative at play here — and if I don’t support saying that a parent cannot, full stop, send Cheetos in the lunch bag, then I can’t support saying that a parent should not be allowed to supply his/her teen with money knowing that the teen may use it to buy those Cheetos. Yes, the schools should do some big-time education. Yes, it might help in some cases. Yes, we should also be working to educate parents. But as all of those things are happening, we also need to understand and accept that there will STILL, ALWAYS be people who think the cheetos are okay…and will continue to eat them…until the day Cheetos cease to exist.

    • alc says

      I completely agree with you. While it would not solve the larger problem I don’t understand why the school can’t make it a rule that the kids can’t leave the school campus during the school day. As a parent I expect my child to be on school grounds during the school day and I would think the school would be responsible for doing so.

      • Bettina Elias Siegel says

        alc – Some campuses are in fact “closed campuses”, which certainly cuts down on the access kids have to junk food. But sometimes similar food is brought in as a fundraiser by student or parent groups, resulting in basically the same situation. It’s a big problem!

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Bri – I, too, would NEVER legislate what a parent can or cannot bring in a lunch. And it sounds like we both support the food truck buffer zone, however effective or ineffective it might be (although Dana’s comment makes me think it might be pretty effective!) And I agree that there will always be kids eating Cheetos and Coke for lunch, yett doing what we can to reduce their number is something I strongly believe in – as I think you do, too. Somewhere in this comment thread (I never know where comments will appear – above or below!) I mention a Michael Pollan article positing that, in the end, Big Business will be throwing its own considerable weight and dollars behind these efforts, because the costs of obesity will be unsustainable. I’ve always believed that to be true – at some point, the balance simply has to shift. I hope, anyway.

  2. says

    I completely agree with you – education is the only realistic option. Less healthy options will always be available no matter what rules, ordinances or laws are in place.

    And eventually they grow up and leave their homes & schools where their ability to eat junk food is unfettered. They need to learn early in life how to make the best choices for themselves. This is no different than how we teach about drugs & alcohol.

    • Barry says

      I most certainly agree. The education portion of school food service has been eliminated and many households no longer teach about food, nutrition and basic skills. Wasn’t that what was being taught in “Home Ec” back in the OLD’en days? Where does that educatio happen today? Manufacturers, suppliers and restaurants of any type are only in the business of selling goods and products. Why do we expect them to have to teach and educate? What about parents?

      • Bettina Elias Siegel says

        Yes, absolutely, Barry – parents need to be the primary educators if possible. But if parents are unable to teach about good nutrition (often out of their own ignorance) we need to find other means of getting that message out. I’m open to any and all suggestions, as I noted in this post and this one.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Right. It’s just a question of who will do this teaching. As I’ve said in other comments on this post (and elsewhere on TLT), if it’s not the parents, can we rely on schools? Can we turn to a public health campaign? I confess I don’t know the answers.

  3. says

    As the originator of the idea that San Francisco needed to have a keep-back ordinance for food trucks, I am naturally going to come down on the side of supporting such public policy moves as one important step in helping kids to make better food choices. Note – I said ONE important step; I think that more nutrition education is, as you say, vital to the process, because even if we can get junk food out of our schools, and prevent trucks from driving up to the front door to sell flamin’ hot cheetos and cokes, it is available to kids virtually everywhere else.

    I was amused that a student in the NYT article insisted that no matter where the trucks were located, kids would still walk to them. Before we settled on 1500 feet here in SF, we surveyed students to find out exactly that – how far would they be willing to walk to buy junk food? What we found was that at 1500 feet, the vast majority of them said they would NOT walk that far.

    In this city, 1500 feet is about 3 good long blocks; we figured that even if a small number of kids were still willing to walk that far (and back again), then at least they would be using their lunch period to get some exercise! And I suspect the reason why most of them said that they wouldn’t walk that far to buy junk food is because they already knew that with just 35-40 minutes bell-to-bell for lunch, they would barely have time to get to the truck, wait in line for their turn to order, and then dash back to school. The teachers generally do not permit kids to eat in class unless it is a grab n go breakfast, so when would they have time to enjoy their junk food even if they did manage to make it back to class? It can take 5 minutes or more just to get from a classroom to the front door of school; our SF ordinance says trucks have to keep back 1500 feet from the perimeter of school, and most high schools take up their own city block, so in reality the kids may have to walk closer to 4 blocks each way…you get the idea. Wolfing down cheetos and trying not to drench yourself with soda from an open can while you run does not make for a desirable lunch period.

    There are still a few trucks that do park near high schools here, keeping to the ordinance, and there are still some students who make the mad dash to get their fix of junk, but far, far less than in the days when the trucks could pull right up to the front of the school. So, as I said, it is one step of several that communities can take to help kids make better choices. After all, are you more likely to snack on chips at home if they are right there in your kitchen, or if you have to walk 3 blocks to the corner store to buy them? The time you spend deciding whether you really want the chips badly enough to walk for them is also time when the “better” part of your brain can take over and remind you that you will be regretting those chips five minutes after you eat them.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Dana – I love hearing from “the source” about these policies. I hadn’t translated “1,500 feet” in my head (nor could I, probably, math-impaired as I am) and when you put it that way, a total of 6 long blocks, it’s actually genius! :-) I should mention to you and to Alissa below that here in HISD our SHAC is going to be working this year on dramatically (we hope) reducing the amount of outside junk food that makes it onto our campuses each day, whether through fundraisers or the “better for you” junk sold by our own food services department. I’ll certainly share any reports of our progress on TLT.

  4. says

    I have to agree with Dana here…no doubt that education is critical, but just like violations for drug dealing are more stringent in school zones, in my opinion “dealing” junk food in close proximity to a school is wrong. Sure, high school kids are not always under the close supervision of their parents and need to learn to make good choices on their own, but there is something to be said for lack of temptation to make really bad choices while at school. In addition to allowing them to focus on other things (like academics, or even how to get a date to the prom!), 7 hours a day without junk creates more opportunities for good habits to develop – maybe, just maybe, if those kids really want a snack and don’t have the cheetos alternative, they’ll eat the baked lays from the cafeteria, or maybe even an apple! That being said, as Dana pointed out, even if the 1,500 ft protective zone doesn’t stop kids from finding the snack trucks, at least they’ll get a little extra exercise in the process 😉

  5. Lenee says

    I think education is the key here, but how do we get parents to educate their children? The school can contribute to the education process, but unless the education of good, wholesome food and healthful eating is also taught at home, I don’t think school education alone will do the trick. I’ve always tried to teach my kids about clean, healthy foods, and it has paid off over the years. When my daughter was in high school she used to pack a healthy lunch everyday, and when she was able to drive she’d come home everyday for lunch, usually eating leftovers from the previous night’s dinner.

    My 17 year old daughter came home one time while out with friends…..I asked her why she came home and she told me all the kids she was out with wanted to go to Jack In The Box. So she dropped them off and came home to eat because she didn’t want to “eat that crap.” She ate a healthy dinner and then went back to pick her friends up.

    My 23 year old son was staying with a friend of mine for a few months and the last time I saw her she was marveling at how healthy his diet was. She was amazed at how he eats because she is so used to how the typical 23 year old eats. She also has 2 kids, ages 23 and 24, and she sees them operate like the majority of kids their age. My son recently moved back in with me and he demonstrated this. He was out running errands and came back home hungry. For a snack he cooked up some steel-cut oats to hold him over before dinner. How many 23 year olds do that?

    My point is that education is the key here, but I don’t think the schools can have a strong impact without the parents being on board too. I practice what I preach and they mimic me. I would always come home for lunch from work, when I was working, and so many people I worked with would raise an eyebrow and wonder why I would do that. Well, I lived a mile from work and didn’t want to poison myself with all the crappy fast food options that surrounded us. If I lived further I would have been packing my lunch more often, which I also did on occasion when I knew I wouldn’t be able to break away during busy times, and I had done this in the past when I worked far from home. My kids have learned to do the same. I was constantly talking about better alternatives and the benefits of healthful eating in different circumstances. Of course that is only part of how I taught them–we always cooked together, we go shopping together, we talk about the benefits of making your own foods that many people buy pre-made and packaged. Not only do you have a healthier alternative, but you save money by making it yourself. There’s so much that goes into the education, more than what can be mentioned here, but it is so possible. It’s a whole lifestyle that can be adopted and I wish more people were able to see how easy it actually is.

    I don’t think we have a lot of control over these outside sources offering unhealthy foods to our kids, but it is very possible for parents to teach their kids how to eat well, and how to make good choices when they’re surrounded by unhealthy options. There’s only so much outside sources can do to educate children and help them eat well. We need these outside sources, but it all comes down to parents being educated and passing that down to their kids. The majority of parents do not have the education themselves, but when they do it makes a huge difference in what choices their kids make about the foods they consume. Again, it’s a lifestyle, and I achieved what I did through living a certain way consistently. All I ever wanted to do was to feed my kids healthy meals and teach them how to do the same for themselves if they chose to. I actually expected them to do the complete opposite for a time, and I didn’t realize the impact this education would have on them.

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Lenee- As I think I said when we first “met” last year here on TLT, your children are so lucky to have had you as a model for teaching them healthful eating! You have clearly done an amazing job. My fear is that many parents (regardless of income/education level) often lack your level of concern and knowledge and simply can’t or won’t provide the same foundation for their kids. What then? I really don’t have the answer to this question which is why I keep writing about this topic so much lately (see, e.g., here and here). I happened to read today this article by Michael Pollan about how and when things are really going to start changing in this society when it comes to food, and I’m inclined to agree with his thesis that it may well be powerful interests in the healthcare industry which eventually lead the charge. We may well see millions and millions being spent on food education by companies like Blue Cross, simply because such companies will no longer be able to avoid the status quo.

      • Lenee says

        Thank you for your kind words….and yes! I completely agree! How do we educate the families/parents? That is the big question. I feel this is the key, but how does one implement it? We can’t seem to come up with a solution. I posted what I did because I feel that everyone can achieve this, but it’s a matter of getting parents to live this lifestyle and teach it, because it works….HOW DO WE DO THIS!?!?!? I’m off to read Michael Pollan’s article you posted, and without even reading it I have a feeling I agree with your statement regarding his thesis.

  6. stef says

    I haven’t read all of the posts, but part of me feels like education is not just the answer, though it is part of the answer. The problem is the disconnect between education and practice…walking the talk. Many adults know what is nutritionally sound or not, and we still insist on over the top school parties, donuts and cupcakes at school, kids should be kids, blah blah blah. And we also feed ourselves poorly. At the book level, we may know what is appropriate but we don’t translate it to practice. Maybe we need to educate differently…and not just kids. It is a behavioural change and change of mindset…for the adults too. Years ago, foreign language was taught in school by memorizing dry conjucations of verbs. Today, foreign language education has evolved to being more interactive and fun. Maybe our nutrition education needs to evolve (or maybe it already has) but needs to focus more on the applied rather than the book learning.

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