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Jane E. Brody, the highly respected personal health columnist for The New York Times, weighed in yesterday with her opinion on whether their should be the teaching of nutritional basics in schools. Her vote: absolutely.

“…in more and more schools nationwide, children from kindergarten through high school are being taught that ‘nutrition’ comes in boxes of fast foods, candy wrappers and soft-drink cans and bottles.

“In many schools, fast-food companies have co-opted the lunch program, and children have ready access to soft-drink and snack machines. In the classroom, too, children in 12,000 schools are required to watch a 12-minute television program every day with two minutes of commercials from companies like McDonald's, Hershey, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, KFC, Frito-Lay, Domino's and 7Up.”

Brody concedes that in exchange for this kind of access, these companies often are contributing vast sums of money to school districts so that they are able to buy things that ordinarily the students might have to do without. However, she notes that there isn’t even any attempt to offer balanced advertising or promotion of healthier products, and suggests that young people are less able than adults to differentiate between editorial content and advertising, giving it all roughly the same heft of credibility.

And while there are examples of how the trends might be shifting, like the recent vote in Los Angeles to ban all soft drink sales in public schools, there are plenty of examples of how the influence of fast food and soft drink companies are becoming more, not less, influential. She describes the $8 million, 10-year agreement in 1997 between the 53-school Colorado Springs district and Coca-Cola that “includes cash bonuses for extra sales and incentives like a new car for a senior with high grades and a perfect attendance record.”

Brody calls for national mobilization by parents. “What is needed now is legislation at the national level, laws with enforcement teeth. So if you are a parent concerned about your child's health, pay attention to the nutrition messages the children receive at school and at home and write to your representatives in Congress about the need for national action.”
KC's View:
Certainly it would seem to us to make sense for both retailers and manufacturers to attempt to play a more active role in the classroom in terms of helping to educate kids about nutrition. What if prominent retailers in various markets offered to underwrite a kind of “nutrition professorship” for the schools, essentially paying the salary of a single teacher who could develop programs and recommendations for school-age kids? This could be great public relations for the retailer, and even build loyalty among these potentially valuable future customers.