Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Feeding teenagers: the prevailing pizza culture

The Ontario Ministry of Education brought in new food rules at the beginning of the 2011/12 school year.  Out went the fries and pop, to be replaced by healthier options (read: lots of whole grains and less processed ingredients) as recommended by Canada's Food Guide.  While I remain critical of the new rules, which give chocolate milk the go-ahead (even though it contains just as much sugar as pop), I certainly believe they are better than the old way of feeding the next generation to have babies and enter the workforce.

We're barely three months into the new system, and the local press has a negative story to hype:  apparently high school students hate the new rules.  They prefer to leave the school grounds to buy their highly processed junk food at restaurants in the neighbourhood rather than facing what the cafeteria has to offer.  This is negatively impacting school revenues from food sales, which are down as much as 30%, so some administrators aren't very happy either.

Reading the article made me wonder if there is any hope for healthy food for teenagers.  At my children's school I listen to the parents discussing food matters at the monthly parent council meetings, and it's evident to me that quite a few of them do not have a problem with the status quo.  I also regularly see the high school students in my neighbourhood crossing the road to the local McDonald's or convenenience store during their lunch hour.  Where are they getting the money from?  Their parents must be supplying them with the cash to purchase lunches every day, rather than insisting on them bringing a healthy lunch from home.

British schools are ahead of us in the fight against poor nutrition at schools, and for some time their councils have had the power to ban fast food outlets from setting up shop within a specified distance of a school.  To my knowledge, this is not something that has been seriously discussed in Canada.

In our household, where we eat completely differently, I know it's sometimes hard for my children.  Kids generally don't like to stand out from their group, after all.  While our kids don't eat the same way that my husband and I do (their consumption of grain in the form of pasta and bread being the big difference), I have noticed that even they are eating a little more primally than before.  And their sugar consumption definitely lags that of all their friends.  What a contrast it is to live in a household where pizza is served less than once a month, as opposed to their friends' houses, where it might be on the table as often as three times a week?

We have several years to go before my kids enter high school.  Maybe things will improve a little by then, as both students and their parents get used to the new rules.  However, I am afraid the well-intentioned new food regulations won't go far enough to change the prevailing junk food culture.  I am afraid it will take more than provincially-mandated rules to turn it around.  To me, it often seems like an unwinnable battle against corporate interests with very deep pockets that enable them to market their heart-clogging offerings on every street corner.

At least, that's my observation from this city of 200,000, where the concentration of fast food outlets exceeds the national average, correlates positively with our residents' waistlines, and where there appears to be no political will at the municipal level to promote access to healthier eating.

It's really very sad.  Most of us are aware that many of today's teenagers will experience more weight-related health problems at a much younger age than their parents or grandparents who grew up on real food.  And as a community, we aren't doing enough to help turn the tide.

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