Food is cheaper than ever, particularly the popular “value” lines. Today, it’s possibly cheaper to eat snacks and ready meals than fruit and vegetables. Work and time commitments mean convenience foods are frequently selected instead of home cooking. This has become a vicious circle so children are now growing up without the knowledge and experience of cooking. Marketing campaigns for confectionery are stronger and louder than healthy eating messages. The use of character merchandising and peer pressure often means that parents give in to the pester power of children in the supermarket.
Quite commonly -tier advertising campaigns are being used. Initially products are marketed to children using cool character merchandising and early morning broadcasting slots. Then manufacturers send a healthy and convenience message on the product to the parent at the point of purchase. Another obvious factor is inactivity. Parents are scared to let their children play in the streets and parks and are opting to keep children inside, protected against the world. The lure of TVs, Playstations and computers to quieten a confined child, is strong.
It appears that the parental fear of stranger childhood abduction is greater than the fear f childhood obesity. The statistics of obesity and abduction could suggest that there is more threat in inactivity and poor nutrition, than successful child abduction2. 2 Who should be responsible for addressing the problem? Whoever or whatever started the problem, the most important question is now who is going to rectify it? Should it be Parliament, Manufacturers, Retailers, Advertisers, Character Licensors, the Parents, or maybe even the Children themselves?
Many lay the blame firmly at the feet of industry for manufacturing and marketing the products. Yes, industry has a role in the supply chain; however, the products are abeled, so consumer information and choice are available. Yes, perhaps businesses should be more responsible when deciding which products to market with character merchandising. However, many companies are now recognizing their influence and are reviewing their lines. A clear example is the recent review by the BBC over the products merchandised with their popular pre-school characters such as Teletubbies.
Retailers also have a strong influence in public nutrition with the majority of food being purchased from supermarkets. Many contend therefore that supermarkets should be accountable. But surely consumers, particularly parents and children, cannot transfer blame this easily? Despite marketing and children pester power, manufacturers and supermarkets cannot force families to buy multi-packs of crisps, pizzas and processed lunchbox snacks, instead of fresh fruit and vegetables. Purchasers make this decision because it’s easier than spending 45 minutes preparing a nutritious snack.
Also, until recently, reluctance to become a Nanny State has meant that Parliament and the EU Commission preferred increasing labelling to more extreme actions such as advertising restrictions or compositional requirements for children’s food. This 2 http://www. crimereduction. gov. uk/violence12. htm. approach is not working and thus the tide is changing, with MPs on the Common Health Select Committee saying Ministers must prepare to intervene if industry agreements on marketing and composition do not show results. The Committee favoured government action over consumer information.
It wants the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to draw up a traffic light system of food and drink labels with red being for high energy, amber being medium and green for low. When private individuals cannot make the correct choice and this affects the public nterest, then perhaps the state should legislate. This is true for tobacco, alcohol and drugs – they are restricted by age, classified according to their danger and are taxed. A child cannot buy spirits or tobacco so should they be permitted to purchase fast food and bags of confectionery with their pocket money?
Perhaps the state should intervene and protect children from either their own choices or inadequate parenting? In an era when billions are being spent on mandatory GM detection and labelling, without the problem even being one of safety, perhaps attention should instead be turned to compositional and marketing standards for hildren’s food? Possibly, this is better use of Industry and the Commission’s time and money? Alternatively, perhaps the answer lies with local authorities. Maybe ideas can be pioneered on transport, planning and school meals that would change children’s futures?
Or perhaps the answer lies in increasing taxation on non-essential foods with funds raised being ring fenced either for the NHS or obesity initiatives? 3 Reducing “junk” food and encouraging healthy eating and exercise? More likely the answer lies in addressing the problem from all angles. For each food usiness in the supply chain to step forward and become accountable for our children’s health. However, this is pointless unless the State (particularly through schools) and Parents also take responsibility and proper care for children’s wellbeing.
Children themselves, above a certain age, also need to be self-responsible – to understand the importance of healthy living. In a country where parents can be imprisoned for their child’s truancy, it is unbelievable that there is no recourse for the state against a parent who allows their child to become so obese at pre-school age, that it jeopardises their life. When will health and lifestyle now be given the same importance as education? In America children can be taken into the care system for the parent failing to apply suncream. Unless action is taken soon, then we may see the same principles eventually being applied to food and neglect.
Possible Suggestions A long-term public information campaign combined with legislation is needed. Increased labelling – make the label clearer in terms of Kcal (rather than KJ) and labelling salt rather than sodium. Children’s products must have nutritional labelling aimed at children, not just parents. This could be done in conjunction with an educational program to children explaining the scheme. Free vitamins, minerals and fish oils for all children of school age. Free or compulsory means tested school meals for all children below 11.
Children above 11 have to stay on school grounds during breaks and the schools have internal rules about lunchbox contents and snacks. Breakfast clubs in schools with higher protein breakfasts rather than toast/chocolate spread. Sponsored by food companies, not by confectionery manufacturers. Such schemes to be permitted as tax deductions. More water fountains in schools and introducing compulsory water bottle schemes so each child has access to water during classtime. No carbonated drinks permitted in schools, particularly the ban of vending machines on school premises.
Free milk (with the option of Soya or goat’s milk alternatives) for every child in primary and junior school. Increased Physical Education classes in school and re-introduce Home Economics as a compulsory subject until the age of 15 concentrating on preparation of food and nutritional content. Increase the number of free after-school sports clubs with teachers being paid to versee these clubs rather than relying on volunteers. Children’s medical centres each month at schools to help prevent, treat and monitor obesity. Weekly weight and diet monitoring and education by the appointed school’s health visitor when necessary.
Restaurants considering the nutritional value of children’s meals and providing nutritional information for parents on the menu (possibly in accordance with the traffic light system suggested). Local authority policies on housing, planning and transport to consider obesity issues – such as attempting to encourage school cycle routes, secure walkways to chool, increased zebra crossings and use of road monitors, prevent development on school fields, and public parks to have attendees and be locked at night so parents don’t worry about the safety.
And if that doesn’t work – more extreme suggestions!!!!! Extend VAT to include all foods outside pre-set compositional standards on fat, sugar and salt. Clear health warnings on the highest fat, sugar, and salt content products. The warning must appear on the front of the product, similar to cigarettes, and be in clear language. Making obesity and poor nutrition an indication of parental neglect.