Banning junk food in Mexico

Like Canada, school meals in Mexico are mostly provided by families in the form of packed sandwiches (tortas), tacos or tortillas brought from home (the high-fat triumvirate is known jokingly as “vitamin T”). But Mexican kids who have spare change can also supplement their meal with snacks and extras (or a full meal) from vendors who either set up shop outside the school gates or pay a fee to the school to come inside. There are some healthy treats like mango cut into beautiful shapes:

Everything on a stick

But it’s chips and pop, pork rinds and candy that tend to be the favourite schoolyard snack.

Just last month, spurred by some of the highest obesity rates in the world, the Mexican government decided to ban the sale of junk food on school grounds starting in September 2010. No more pop, sweets, salted tamarind candy, pork rinds or atole (a hot, sweet corn-based drink). There is also a new requirement of 30 minutes of exercise per day for students (though the lack of facilities and staffing will make this a challenge).

Hunger used to be the biggest problem in Mexico (and it remains a serious concern as the gap between rich and poor widens), but overweight and obesity are major issues as urbanization and the resulting changing diet and more sedentary lifestyle has wrecked havoc on the country’s collective waistline. Indeed, poverty and obesity often go hand in hand.

Today, slightly more than 1 in every 4 kids in the Mexican schoolyard are overweight or obese, along with 70% of adults. And Mexicans drink more soda pop than any other country in the world. According to the Christian Science Monitor, they actually get 20% of their daily total caloric intake from these drinks.

Whether this schoolyard ban will do much good is up for debate since, for one thing, the government isn’t threatening to limit vendors outside school gates from selling junk. And soda companies, of course, have fiercely resisted any limits on their activities before.

Plus, personal choice isn’t the only reason for the obesity epidemic. As elsewhere in the world, high fat, high sugar snacks tend to be far cheaper and more accessible than healthy alternatives like fresh fruit and veg—a systemic problem that will require more than a schoolyard ban (however welcome) to remedy.

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