business news in context, analysis with attitude

The Washington Post reports that "for years, consumer advocates and nutritionists have said that schools should stock more healthful snacks, but schools and districts have been reluctant to make that change." However, "advocates say a number of obstacles have slowed efforts to overhaul the nutritional quality of snacks and drinks. Vending contracts with soft drink companies, for example, support a vigorous microeconomy. Budget-strapped principals have signed lucrative deals with Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. For a cut of the sales, schools can buy band uniforms and other must-haves, while the company gets exclusive rights to sell its products on campus."

And, the Post writes, "A 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office found that almost 75 percent of high schools had signed exclusive soft drink contracts." Making it more difficult for companies trying to promote healthier options is the fact that they tend to pay lower commissions on sales, which puts them at a financial disadvantage. And then, there's the other problem – a lot of kids, given the choice, simply don't want to eat healthy snacks.

KC's View:
On so many levels, none of this should be surprising. After all, these are habits – both fiscal and physical – that have been formed over decades, and one shouldn't expect overnight change just because there have been headlines and studies highlighting the nation's obesity crisis.

The first thing that has to change is the way parents shop for their families. You bring home more fruit and vegetables and healthy beverages, and less so-called "junk food," and you create a different mindset in your family. (This can takes years, by the way.) You also have to create a healthy approach to eating, which says that moderation and smart choices are better than denial and fad diets; indulgence is okay, if offset by exercise and intelligent eating the rest of the time.

Retailers, by the way, should take a more active role in encouraging a smarter approach to shopping and eating. We're already seeing that with programs like the ONQI and Guiding Stars nutritional rating systems, and I would expect that we'll see a lot more of this down the road. But retailers should active partners in promoting these systems, and in developing marketing schemes that build on them.

Once these foundations have been established, that's when you start making changes in the schools – in the cafeterias and vending machines, as well as in insisting on better physical education programs. As the parents of schoolchildren, not to mention taxpayers, we certainly have the right to influence public policy in this way. But you have to work on private policy first…you can't expect schools to do a job that you are unwilling to undertake at home.

Interestingly, the Washington Post had a piece yesterday detailing what it called "a fragmented, inchoate response" to the national obesity crisis "that critics say has suffered particularly from inadequate direction and dollars at the federal level."

The Post notes that "the problem at first was that the problem was ignored: For almost two decades, young people in the United States got fatter and fatter -- ate more, sat more -- and nobody seemed to notice. Not parents or schools, not medical groups or the government." But once the alarm was sounded and a national study was done in 2004, "the top recommendation of that seminal report was for the government to convene a high-level, interdepartmental task force to guide a coordinated response. No such body has been assembled."

The Post writes, "Contrast that with the offensive mounted in European countries: France mandated health warnings on televised food ads. Spanish officials reached agreement with industry leaders on tighter product labeling and marketing as well as reducing fat, salt and sugar in processed foods.

"Britain has gone the farthest, restricting food ads on TV programs catering predominantly to children and pulling sweets and sweetened drinks from schools. Eighty-five percent of all grades have at least two hours of physical education a week. The 2011 goal is five hours."

No such coordinated, national approach has been developed in the US.

But let me suggest that one of the reasons that there has been no coordinated national approach to the obesity crisis in the US is that there has been no overwhelming approach to the obesity crisis in many American homes. And until you do the latter, you can't do the former.