Harvard Forum: Who decides what your children eat?

Jan
10
2011

Harvard Forum: Who decides what your children eat?

When San Francisco voted to eliminate toys from McDonald’s Happy Meals, the Forum at the Harvard School of Public Health invited comments on this issue.  Here’s what I had to say about it:

I’m surprised at the mayor’s comment that “parents, not politicians, should decide what their children eat,” because the San Francisco ordinance is not about the food. It’s about the toys.

Nobody is stopping parents from ordering Happy Meals for their kids. But as everyone knows, kids only want Happy Meals because of the toys.

The idea that government has no role in food choice is ludicrous. The government is intimately involved in food choices through policies that make the cost of some foods—those containing subsidized corn or soybeans, for example—cheaper than others.

It is not an accident that five dollars at McDonald’s will buy you five hamburgers or only one salad. It is not an accident that the indexed price of fruits and vegetables has increased by 40% since the early 1980s, whereas the indexed price of sodas has decreased by 30%. Right now, agricultural policies support our present industrialized food system and strongly discourage innovation and consumption of relatively unprocessed foods.

Agricultural policies are the results of political decisions that can be changed by political will. If we want agricultural policies aligned with health policies—and I certainly do—we need to exercise our democratic rights as citizens and push for changes that are healthier for people and the planet.

Yes, individuals are the ultimate arbiters of food choice.

But our present food system makes unhealthful eating the default. We need to be working for government policies that make healthy eating the default. The San Francisco ordinance is a small step in that direction.

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