Tag Archives: fast food marketing to children

What’s on The Lunch Tray?

Bettina Elias Siegel is a former lawyer, writer and host at the must-read American blog about kids and food (“in school and out”) called The Lunch Tray. She has been a fearless crusader for healthier school meals for several years, and was the brains behind the successful petition to the USDA to get rid of pink slime (fatty beef trimmings treated with ammonium hydroxide and added as filler to ground beef—yuck!) in the meat served in American schools.

I always enjoy her smart and nuanced writing and thinking about kids and food issues—especially her unapologetic defense of equity in the cafeteria—but I also appreciate that she sometimes blogs about what she’s feeding her family. School food is that kind of issue: the personal really is political.

So, of course, I was honoured and delighted when Bettina asked to interview me about What’s for Lunch? Here’s an excerpt from the Q &A after the jump. To read the whole thing, please visit The Lunch Tray. In fact, visit The Lunch Tray anyway.

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School lunch matters

With the recent publication of What’s for Lunch? I’ve been talking a lot about the potential for school lunch to transform schools and communities. I thought I’d try to express some of those possibilities in an easy-to-digest infographic ready for sharing. Please feel free to share, and let others know about the power of food.

Many thanks to Oliver Sutherns who designed and stick-handled the infographic from idea to reality!

Embed this image on your site:

<a href="http://unpackingschoollunch.wordpress.com/the-blog/school-lunch-matters/"><img src="http://unpackingschoollunch.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/school-lunch-infographic1.jpg" alt="School Lunch Matters Infographic" border="0" /></a><br />Brought to you by <a href="http://unpackingschoollunch.wordpress.com">Andrea Curtis</a>

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Gold medal gorging and other Olympic tall tales

I love the Olympics. I’m a total sucker for the stories about triumph over adversity, and especially susceptible to weeping when athletes thank their mom. My older brother was an Olympic athlete—a Tornado sailor for Canada in the Athens Games (he’s still working hard for sailing in Canada here).  I know well how hard he  worked to get there with very little government (or other) support, the nights he and his sailing partner spent sleeping on floors, in vans, on the ground, how they had to hustle to raise money on their own to transport their boats, to buy equipment, to pay for training support, logistics and travel. I know the personal and career sacrifices he had to make. That is the heart of the Olympics to me—people who are so committed to their sport that everything else falls away. I admire the passion and the single-minded determination such a commitment requires.

Of course, I’m hardly alone. People all over the world love the Olympics—watching it feverishly on TV, the internet, etc.—so the fact that some of the biggest food/beverage companies in the world have attached themselves to it through sponsorship isn’t surprising. McDonald’s has actually built its biggest restaurant in the world at the Olympic Park, seating 1,500 diners and serving up to 14,000 people a day. I’m not surprised, but I am disappointed. To suggest through such sponsorship that the world’s best athletes are fuelled by this kind of food is a powerful message to children: “If they eat it, why not me?” (I’m pretty sure the world’s children will never quite recover from gold-medal–winning swimmer Micheal Phelps’  endorsement of cheeseburgers—and sugar cereal.) Continue reading

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Kids are people, too

When I was a kid, I had a T-shirt that I wore to death with the words KIDS ARE PEOPLE, TOO! emblazoned across the front in scrawly kids’ writing.

At the time, there was a popular TV variety show of the same name (check out the cheesy theme song, disco moves and trampoline KISS kicks), but for me, it was the message behind the words that really rang true.

From about the time I was 9 and had some independence, I found myself outraged by the way some adults treated kids—as if we had nothing relevant to say, as if we should shut up in restaurants and stores, as if our opinions didn’t matter. I hated that when my friends and I collected our pennies and other coins, hopped on our banana-seat bikes and headed to the corner store, the store owner treated us like we weren’t legit customers. He’d eye us as if suspecting we were planning to pocket the penny candy instead of pay for it, then hustle us out once we’d made our choices. Continue reading

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What’s the choice?

As parents, we’re often told to give our children choices. This will offer kids a sense of power and provide them with the notion that they are capable, independent people able to make good decisions on their own. Attempting to employ this technique when my boys were younger, I would often find myself offering them a choice between what I wanted them to do and something horrible. Say, “Well, daaaarling, if you don’t like dinner, you can make a choice to sit here and eat like a civilized person with the rest of the family or you can choose to go upstairs to your bedroom and be all by yourself while the rest of us enjoy ourselves (and, oh yeah, no dessert).”

I’m not sure that was what the parenting experts meant, but it worked for a while.

I was thinking about it this week when a YouTube video made by high school students in Toronto complaining about the provincial ban on junk food in cafeterias made the rounds.

The gist of the student’s argument—told using a KONY2012-inspired style—was that because of the new “healthier” offerings in the caf, most of the kids are leaving school grounds to eat lunch. School boards, they said, are losing money, and kids are still eating junk. The narrator argued that since adults are always talking about how kids need opportunities to make good choices—why not give high school students a choice in what they eat?

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Who’s your nanny?

School food and parental responsibility

This is part three in a week-long conversation with Jeannie Marshall, author of the brilliant Outside the Box: Why Our Children Need Real Food, Not Food Products.

For those of you who missed the last two parts in this conversation, the book is part manifesto, part family story.  It’s about the disappearance of “real food,” as the title suggests, but more than anything, it’s about the value of  “food culture” in ensuring a healthy and sustainable food system for kids and adults alike.  Jeannie’s easy-to-read style and chilling, clear-eyed marshalling of the facts makes it a standout among food books.

Today, the appeal of forbidden food and the dangers of allowing industrial food to call the shots.

Q: When anyone starts suggesting regulating soda pop consumption or, in Canada, introducing universal school lunches, there’s always a lot of talk about the nanny state and how parents are absconding from their responsibility. How do you respond to this?

Jeannie Marshall: I would say we should be asking just who is our nanny? Is it the government with regulations or is it industry? Right now we are being told what to eat, reminded to eat it constantly and even given very little real choice about what to eat – but it’s the food industry that does this, not the government. Nestlé goes into schools with nutrition information to teach children how to eat. Now there’s a nanny I really don’t want for my kid.

It would be great if we could have government regulations that supported a genuine food culture, one that nourishes human beings rather than fattens up the food industry. I realize I’m wishing for a radical change in perception, but I think it would be great if communities could collectively decide what they want to eat and if the government could help them to find it. Maybe this would involve supporting small farmers to grow a wide variety of foods with as few chemicals as possible rather than encouraging them to grow single crops for commodity purchasers. It would also be great if labels that tell you something about the way the food is grown (i.e. organic, free-range, etc) could be standard and meaningful. This would mean saying “no” GMO crops cannot be labelled as organic. Continue reading

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Read this book!

Last year at this time, my family and I visited Rome. We ate and walked and bumped into major historical sites at every turn and then ate some more. (See my post on school lunch in Italy here.)

While there, a mutual friend introduced us to Jeannie Marshall, a Canadian writer and journalist who’s lived in Italy for many years with her husband, James, and their young son, Nico. We met up at a wonderful pizza place in Trastevere (where one of my sons promptly feel asleep with his head on the table!), and I learned that Jeannie was also working on a book about kids and food.

Well, that book, Outside the Box: Why Our Children Need Real Food, Not Food Products is out, and it is a game-changer. Part manifesto, part family story, it’s about the disappearance of “real food,” as the title suggests, but more than anything, it’s about the value of  “food culture” in ensuring a healthy and sustainable food system for kids and adults alike. Anyone with an interest in children and food (parents, teachers, activists, educators of all kinds), or the politics of the food system should run out and get it now. Jeannie’s easy-to-read style and chilling, clear-eyed marshalling of the facts makes it a standout among food books.

Jeannie graciously agreed to answer some questions for all of us here at What’s for Lunch? and I’ll be running her answers all week. Please come back the rest of the week for more!

Today, why kids in the Hebrides used to love to eat cod heads stuffed with liver and why kids in Toronto wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole.

Q: I was fascinated and a bit depressed by your early chapter on how children’s taste for healthy, whole food is perverted, even destroyed, by industrial food. What can we do to support kids to establish a taste for healthier, more sustainable food?

Jeannie Marshall: The first thing we can do is avoid the industrial food in our own homes. That means pretty much everything that comes in a package, whether it’s sliced, whole wheat bread we buy in the supermarkets or frozen fish sticks. We have to resist the urge to buy “products” that we think are healthy and remember that real food is always healthier.

But, another important thing is to recognize that what we do in our homes is not enough. As children grow up they naturally try to understand and fit into their communities, particularly with their peer group. Whether we recognize it or not, we live in a culture – it’s like a fine net that holds us together and is all but invisible to those of us who live within it. Yet it exerts an incredible power over our preferences in everything from food to fashion. It even forms a fundamental part of our identity. What we eat tells us something about who we are. For centuries in many parts of the world this sense of shared identity that comes through eating and enjoying the same foods as our neighbours has kept us alive.

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Selling treats to children

Another great infographic from the folks at teach.com.

(Thanks to Jeannie Marshall for the link. Her book, Outside the Box: Why Our Children Need Real Food Not Food Products, comes out in April.)

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The 21st century gingerbread house

Like many city kids his age who must take various buses and streetcars to school, my older son has a cell phone with a modest plan he uses mostly for texting. This month when I opened the bill, there was an extra $13 tagged onto it. I immediately asked him what that was all about (we’ve agreed any  charges on top of the basic bill are his responsibility) but he had no idea. The cell service was more certain. Seems he inadvertently enlisted himself in some “subscription” by downloading what he was told was free music.

My son is a pretty savvy kid. He’s knows his way around technology, too, but, like most of us, didn’t read the fine print.

I thought of this devious marketing trick (and my son’s bewilderment) as I read a fascinating report put out jointly by The Children’s Food Campaign (part of Sustain UK) and the British Heart Foundation called “The 21st century gingerbread house: how companies are marketing junk food to children online” (available for free download—no hidden subscription fees involved!).

Researchers conducted content analysis of 100 food brand product websites in the UK, and discovered that food companies have come up with a huge variety of techniques to promote junk food to kids.  TV advertising has long been regulated to ensure kids aren’t getting sold crap food every two seconds, but the internet remains the wild west, with vague regulations that marketers have easily eluded.

Using cartoons, animations, brand characters, competitions, promotions (free stuff—no kid can resist free stuff), games, quizzes, free downloads, etc. these companies are building brand loyalty one 10 year old at a time.

Of course, schools and parents have a key role in helping educate their children about how to be smart consumers (of both websites and junk food), but this is very insidious stuff—it’s not easy to identify some of these sites as advertising. (Not unlike my son thinking he was simply downloading free music but instead passively “signing up” for some expensive subscription.)  With a diet-related health crisis on our hands, there’s no question we need stronger regulations of junk food marketing (wherever it occurs) in order to support kids to make good choices.

As Charlie Powell, Campaigns Director for the Children’s Food Campaign writes: “…research has now shown that the marketing of unhealthy foods to children influences not only which brands they choose, but the overall balance of their diet. Unsurprisingly, it encourages children to eat energy-dense fatty, sugary or salty foods rather than more nutritious options. If marketing didn’t work, the food industry wouldn’t devote multi-million pound budgets to developing slick campaigns to spread their messages.”

Check out also Sustain’s “Dodgiest junk food marketing claims” of 2011. A public poll determined that Chupa Chups’ suggestion that its yellow lollipops were made with only real lemon juice was the most egregious marketing claim. Seems there’s only 3 per cent real fruit in the suckers.

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Snack time

On Thursday afternoons during the school year, I run an after-school writing program for Grade 6 kids. It’s called Writing in the City and it’s offered free through the amazing Toronto community-based nonprofit called Word-Play (we just launched our new web site this week—check it out here!). All of Word-Play’s programs operate out of the basement gallery of Toronto’s awesome indie bookstore, TYPE on Queen Street.

www.word-play.caWord-Play is a volunteer-run organization that started in 2006 after TYPE books’ owners Jo Saul and Samara Walbohm began talking to others in the community about what kinds of supports kids in the neighbourhood might need. It’s been going ever since—focusing on children from three neighbourhood schools— and now has three different programs: Reading, Writing and Filming in the City. (Check out the films the kids made this summer in the film program—3 shorts based on Newbery-Award winning novels that were submitted to a New York Public Library film festival that ran this fall.)

From the beginning, snacks have been part of the after-school deal. When I started planning the writing workshop (the kid are 11, some will turn 12 in the winter), one of the first things I thought about was how ravenous my own kids are after school most days. They are growing every day and need regular food just to stay focused (come to think of it, so do I, and I stopped growing a long time ago).

The way we set it up, they actually have two breaks for food in the  2 hours they’re with us.  It’s really simple and healthy stuff: crackers and cheese, pita and hummus, granola bars, apples, carrots, popcorn sometimes. It doesn’t cost a huge amount but it makes a huge difference.

Once the kids in the workshop have eaten, they can relax into the space and whatever art, drama, creative movement, storytelling or writing we’re doing that day. They’re energized and no longer focused on their bellies. I think they also like it because it’s a signal that this is not a school program—where they have to bring their own food if they want to snack.

When we ask the kids a few times a year about the things they wouldn’t want to change about the workshop, they invariably say THE SNACK!!!! (They love those exclamation marks!) They also talk about the staff and the games we do and the writing exercises we experiment with, but they almost always say they love the chance to eat.

I don’t want to downplay all the other great things we do in the writing workshop, but I do think the snack is the foundation of our success.

Now if only we could get the Canadian government to sit up and take notice of the myriad—much researched—benefits of feeding our children at school.

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