FoodPolitik: Do we really need a ‘Food Day’?

Richard Berman President, Berman and Company
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Hundreds of events around the country today will celebrate “Food Day,” a relic of the 1970s that petered out — presumably — because it was irrelevant. Judging from this year’s lineup, we should hope this encore is a one-time precursor to extinction.

This resurrection of Food Day includes a veritable “Who’s Who” of activist groups trying, in one way or another, to regulate, tax, or even ban many of the foods most Americans enjoy. It’s organized by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a group that wags its finger at just about anything that tastes good. Then there’s Yale’s Rudd Center, an intellectual force pushing taxes on soft drinks and other foods. And the misnamed “Physicians Committee” for Responsible Medicine wants to get rid of cheese and dairy products.

Of course, with such a large “coalition,” the clashing of activist agendas leads to some humorous results. On one hand, you have the veganism-promoting Humane Society of the United States (not affiliated with your local pet shelter) dishing out fake meat, and on the other you have CSPI’s executive director dismissing the no-animal-products zealotry as “almost like a religion.”

But amidst the fray, Food Day has one message that its organizers think we should care about: The government should ban “junk” food marketing aimed at kids.

This idea has been gaining steam in recent months as a conglomerate of federal agencies proposed some “voluntary” measures to curb food marketing. The premise is that the marketing in food that appeals to children is causing them to gain weight.

Of course, there are a number of reasons why this is totally fat-headed. First, the largest review of the evidence, a 2006 Institute of Medicine report, found that food marketing was not causally linked to obesity in children. Another study recently determined that kids are seeing significantly fewer ads for unhealthy foods on television.

Second, the very notion that a cartoon character on a cereal box is causing weight gain is ridiculous. Children’s characters have long flacked for candy and other such foods. The characters from the 1940s and 1950s show “Super Circus” sold Snickers and Three Musketeers. Howdy Doody and Mr. Bluster promoted Twinkies and Tootsie Roll pops. Cowboy actor Roy Rogers promoted “candy-coated” Sugar Crisp cereal.

But in those days, regardless of all the icons promoting candy and sugary cereal, kids were rather slim. It was far before obesity rates started to rise — something that probably has much more to do with a general culture of inactivity than with advertising.

What’s really at issue here is who’s in charge of raising kids. Is it parents, or bureaucracy?

Activist groups that want these marketing bans think that parents are somehow powerless to do anything in the face of ads. We’ve already seen this line of thought pushed in California last year as activists moved to take toys out of kids’ meals (they succeeded in San Francisco, but that’s not surprising).

Sure, parents have to deal with nagging from their kids for unhealthy food. But that’s nothing special: Kids nag mom and dad, and kids aren’t focused on a nutritious diet plan? Imagine that.

Parents who do take their kids out have more options than ever. Kids’ meals at fast-food restaurants can come with milk instead of soda and fruit instead of fries.

Alternatively, parents can just say “no” (a radical idea, surely). After all, kids generally aren’t hopping into a car themselves and going to the drive-thru.

Fortunately, the federal government appears to be coming to the conclusion that draconian marketing restrictions and surrogate parenting are dumb ideas. After the feds received feedback on initial “voluntary” regulations to restrict marketing, they suggested they’d scale back the original plan.

Instead of encouraging parents to be parents, groups like CSPI are trying to perform an end-run around them. In their world, Ronald McDonald would be shuffled off to a retirement home, Tony the Tiger would be an extinct species, and Count Chocula would have a stake put through his heart.

That wouldn’t make anyone healthier, but it would spread CSPI’s general joylessness from adults to a younger generation. I’m not lovin’ it.