‘Ottawa’ Reevely: Ottawa’s Health Unit Wants to Restrict junk-food Marketing in Schools
“I’m lovin’ it!” my seven-year-old declared of his breakfast Monday morning — toast with a scrambled egg, at the family table.
“McDonald’s!” replied his just-turned-six brother. I straightened up. I heard my wife stop washing something in the kitchen.
The kids have had McDonald’s. We stop at A&W by the 401 when we drive to Toronto. We have an alarming number of Pizza Hut kids’ cups in our house. We’re not nutters. But between Netflix and an iPad, the boys watch practically zero live commercial television. Where did they hear that jingle?
At school, as it turns out. The older one’s teacher puts on The Magic School Bus at lunch and it has ads for McDonald’s in it. He taught the younger one.
The second-graders are supposed to eat their lunches at their desks, silently. Which makes the meal efficient: Their “balanced school day” has two short eating periods instead of one long one, so they can’t mess around. But it’s also kind of boring, so they watch educational television … with fast-food commercials in it.
Ottawa’s health unit would like to put a stop to it and anything like it, as part of a much broader strategy to further reduce the marketing of junk food to “vulnerable populations,” namely children. The unit’s presenting an outline of its ideas to the health board next Monday, asking for permission to hold consultations. Possibilities include:
- banning junk-food marketing in schools entirely;
- using zoning to restrict fast-food places near schools and other places children congregate; and
- eliminating exclusive contracts for concessions in city-owned buildings or instituting a healthy-vending policy for winning bidders.
The last item would target deals for “pouring rights” with companies like Coca-Cola for city buildings, giving them domination over pop sales. Maybe you remember when the city’s $250,000 deal allowed Coca-Cola to install a Coke machine at City Hall that dispensed free sugar drinks for hugs and Lisgar Collegiate students rushed in to fuel up. The health unit, understandably, had a conniption.
Parents have to teach and model good eating and exercise habits for our kids. We have to say no a lot. But it’s helpful to not be undermined by other authority figures in your child’s life.
No doubt the McDonald’s ads are incidental. Nevertheless: “A situation like this one creates a learning opportunity for staff and students about the implications of commercial marketing and affords an opportunity to change the practice,” board spokeswoman Sharlene Hunter said Tuesday, when I asked about it.
“Our priority is to create a learning environment for students which is based on the curriculum and which supports a healthy lifestyle and is consistent with the learning outcomes, character attributes and values which we try to incorporate in our schools and classrooms,” Hunter said.
Kids are not ever to be used as a captive audience for marketing, she said.
The provincial education ministry has a healthy-food policy that the Ottawa school boards follow, which essentially says that if schools sell food the bulk of what’s on offer has to be healthy, and bans pure junk food. But there are a lot of loopholes. Healthy choices have to be offered but you can’t make kids buy them. The provincial rules do not apply to food distributed free. Or on up to 10 special-event days per year, which is really kind of a lot.
For their school lunches, we strive mightily to keep the salt and fat down and the variety up (for which I wish the wee beasties were a little more appreciative). Leftover chicken in the sandwiches instead of cold cuts, melon and kiwi instead of apples and oranges all the time, snap peas and broccoli in the veggie rotation.
One day I threw in little packets of Star Wars-branded graham-cracker things we got from somewhere. The government says none of its restrictions apply to food brought in from home, but the school has its own anti-treat rule. One boy got to eat his; the other had his sent home as excessively treat-like. Hot with something between anger and shame, I checked labels and found the crackers were nutritionally almost identical to Wheat Thins. But they looked like treats to somebody, who stepped in.
Despite the rule against using students as a captive audience for advertising, they are used as vectors for marketing to parents.
The school will send pizza into classrooms, for kids whose parents pay for it, as a weekly fundraiser for the school council. You order it in bulk at the beginning of each term.
Two out of three topping options have no vegetables besides the sauce. One slice just barely hits the ministry’s allowed standards for fat and fibre. Two slices blows past the fat maximum and exceeds the one for sodium, too. It is junk food. But “all the options are on whole wheat crust, in keeping with the Ontario Ministry of Education’s school food and beverage policy.”
Every few weeks the boys’ backpacks come home with colourful brochures for the Lunch Lady service, which delivers à-la-carte meals. There are plenty of healthy choices there, but also things nobody anywhere should eat for lunch — pancakes, say, with syrup and chocolate chips as an add-on. Or parfaits of sugary yogurt with added garbage. Guess which pictures the kids always point out?
The kids’ health is important, but as long as the benefits accrue to the schools, students can get pepperoni pizza for lunch one day, pancakes the next, and McDonald’s ads while they eat in front of a TV. The health unit can’t control school-board policies, but a little bullying is probably in order.