Uncle Sam attacked the worsening problem of childhood obesity the way we Americans attack most problems — by dumping money on it.
More than $1 billion a year is spent trying to cajole and convince children to eat fruits and vegetables instead of junk food. It doesn’t work.
Associated Press reporter Martha Mendoza reviewed scientific studies of 57 such programs and found “mostly failure.” She quoted one expert as saying, “Any person looking at the published literature about these programs would have to conclude that they are generally not working.” Childhood obesity is a grave national health problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that since the 1970s obesity has increased nearly five times among 6- to 11-year-olds and tripled among teens and children 2 to 5.
The reasons are as simple as they are intractable. A program that offered fifth-graders free fruits and vegetables failed, actually backfired, said the AP, because the kids apparently just didn’t like the taste. Another program had temporary success by offering prizes for good nutrition, but seven months later the kids were back to chips and soda.
One eight-year program at $7 million a year in Los Angeles espousing good nutrition made no difference in what the kids ate. But it did — shades of the fad for self-esteem courses — produce “a more positive attitude toward fruits and vegetables.” The point is to get the kids to eat the fruits and vegetables, not respect them.
Children eat poorly because their parents eat poorly and may be even influenced in the womb by what their mothers eat during pregnancy. And tastes seem to become quickly ingrained, by the 10th birthday, the story found. And then there is the relentless pressure of the culture. AP cited a study that found children ages 8 to 12 see 21 TV ads a day for candy, snacks, cereal, fast food and the like and none for fruits and vegetables.
The few programs that show promise stress physical activity over nutrition education or involve a supervised full-court press of checkups, exercise and family involvement.
Surely, it’s dismaying to policymakers to have spent so much and have so little to show for it. Focus instead on parents adopting healthier family diets.