As parents all around the country send their kids back to school, the topics of childhood obesity and school lunches are certain to return to the national spotlight. And while government officials often talk about the importance of parental involvement in reducing childhood obesity, the policies currently being considered by the Obama administration offer parents nothing more than a large serving of disincentives to focus on their children's eating habits. Why should they bother when government food nannies are more than willing to take over?
It starts the minute a child wakes up in the morning. No longer do we expect parents to feed their children a simple breakfast before they head out to an eight-hour day at school. Why should they? Kids are fed breakfast at most schools today.
Pack your kid a lunch? No need! Moms and dads don't need to take the time to pack a sack lunch when they can hand their child a couple of dollars to purchase a nutritionally questionable meal at the school cafeteria.
Prepare a family dinner? Unnecessary! The U.S. Department of Agriculture has that meal covered with the newly expanded school dinner program. And there's no need to worry about those annoying summer months – many schools now provide lunch to kids even when school's out for the summer.
It's not just in the school setting that government has commandeered parents' traditional role. They are also busy regulating other food providers to restrict what's available to parents and their charges.
Years ago, parents would simply say "no" to the child's request for a particular fast food. Today, the hassle of denying your child that Happy Meal isn't necessary thanks to the food nannies who harangued McDonald's into changing the Happy Meal's components (the company denies they were pressured). The rejiggered Happy Meal now has fewer French fries and has apple slices and low-fat milk.
It doesn't matter to the food police that McDonald's has been offering healthy menu items for years; what matters is that consumers were ignoring these healthy options – still choosing what they and their children wanted to eat. A recent poll bears this out – showing that while 88 percent of parents knew that apple slices were on the menu, only 11 percent ordered the apples.
Personal choice is the sticky wicket food nannies can't seem to overcome. To compensate, they simply push to have the children's meal changed to suit certain specifications. The hope is that this will force kids to eat the healthy item without parental actions.
What message does that send to a child? What parental action has the child observed that has taught him about proper nutrition, portion control and self-regulation? What conversation took place between child and parent about how apples are good for you, and you need to eat things that make you healthy and strong?
Government now plans to "help" parents by dictating how foods can be advertized on television – the theory being that food commercials encourage unhealthy eating. As Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius explained, "Our children spend more than five and a half hours a day using media, and for almost all of those hours, they're bombarded by ads … our interagency working group has been working hard to develop recommendations for nutritional standards we will use to decide which ads should be shown to kids."
There again, instead of the government trusting parents to simply turn off the television and decide what food to buy, or not buy, four powerful federal regulatory agencies are preparing to put in place an aggressive regulatory regime that will severely limit the food industry's ability to market their products. Analysts believe this measure could cost the food industry billions of dollars and upwards of 74,000 jobs.
Everyone wants kids to develop good eating habits, but it simply is not the role of government to try to control what kids eat. Moreover, government efforts simply don't work. Research overwhelmingly shows that parents largely determine a child's weight. Yet parents have become willing prisoners of the food police. They are ceding basic parental responsibilities to government-run cafeterias and seem unfazed by the clear encroachment of the government into personal parenting decisions.
Parents' collective Stockholm Syndrome for the food police must end. We must take back the care and feeding of our own children if we want healthy kids.