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Escaping the junk food jungle

When I learned my high school daughter was heading out to the local fast food joints for lunch, I panicked. A few years back, I’d stopped packing her lunch for school because half the time it came home uneaten and, besides, I liked the idea of my daughter becoming more responsible.

Well, that didn’t exactly happen. She didn’t pack her lunch. She just gave in to the temptations that had been dangled before her eyes since she began watching Dora the Explorer.

On average, our children watch 4,600 television advertisements for junk food every year. Food companies spend $2 billion annually trying to convince youngsters to eat more fat, more sugar, and more salt. Just what our children need. Now, more than ever before, children are suffering from high rates of obesity and diet-related diseases such as Type 2 Diabetes.

But wait – what’s even more insidious is that the advertising isn’t limited to television, like it was in the old days. Fast food companies are all over the internet. We’re not just talking pop-up ads, banner ads, or “featured” sites on searches. Food companies actually create sites with games just to attract children so that they can build brand loyalty and get their name, email address, birthday, Facebook information, phone number and so on. Let’s just say that you might want to be sitting down with little Johnny for a talk about what information to give out on the net.

I suppose I should count myself lucky that my daughters are not exposed to the level of product indoctrination that some kids get in the US. There, some schools allow Coca Cola fundraising (win a plastic toy if you sell a certain number of Coca Cola products). Others permit company logos in school gyms and in school hallways in return for funds, and advertising on school buses. I even read of one effort by McDonald’s to place ads on report card envelopes – perform well in school and you get a Happy Meal! It didn’t happen, though, thanks to the efforts of an activist group called Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

You might wish that at least the schools would stop selling junk food. A few years ago the Ontario government thought it would do just that, so it pushed through a well-intentioned Healthy Schools Strategy that was meant to reduce the amount of fast food in schools. It did. Although my daughter can still get French fries and pizza at the school cafeteria, there’s healthier fare too, and no more pop or candy bars in the vending machines.

So far so good. Except that, as Ontario Auditor-General Bonnie Lysyk has told us (see her recent report), kids are fleeing the schools at lunch time to find their fix elsewhere.

It’s the time of year for resolutions, so here’s one. If they’re in your house, toss out The Oreo Cookie Counting Book and The M&M’s Brand Counting Book (yes, these books do exist). Spend a little time talking about advertising with your children – its purposes and goals. Arm them with media literacy so that they become not blind media consumers but media observers, analysts and critics.

And don’t knock yourself when your children eat junk food once in a while. Control what you can – what goes into the fridge and onto the dinner table. And get that conversation going!

 

Margaret Hoogeveen is a local writer, editor and mother of two daughters – mhoogeveen@sympatico.ca

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