Part II: Outside Influences
I first started this article series when I realized how many other influences there are on my child’s diet. I was trying to buy plastic food and a grocery cart for my child. The amount of branded fast food "toys" and junk food options were astounding.
Up to this point, I had had the illusion of control. What hit me like a ton of bricks, as I stood in the toy kitchen and food aisle, was how brief that period of control really was.
While we parents are still a primary influence on our child’s diet, there are many other sources of influence that enter a child’s life at least by age three, and sooner if your child attends a day care or has other outside-of-home care, or even just goes out for an occasional play date and has a snack or lunch. There are also less direct, and less obvious sources of influence. These include marketing, schools, neighborhood characteristics, the restaurant industry, and even the food system as a whole complete with government impacts.
Parents versus peers
A study by L.L. Birch in 1999 found that as young as preschool children would begin to like certain vegetables if they saw their peers eat them. This would be great, if it were just vegetables. Personally, I live in fear of the first birthday party that offers soda, the first sleep-over with a trip to McDonald’s for dinner. It’s inevitable. All I can do is hope that the healthy choices I provide will ultimately win out.
The good news is, parental influence still rates higher than peers even as children grow up. Parents and their children share 76-87 percent of food likes. But only 19 percent of shared likes occurred among adolescent friendships. Most of these preferences shared with peers were for snack foods.
Child-care Facilities and Schools
I’ll be the first to say I am less than thrilled with the menu at my child’s care facility. Lunch items include things like Tater Tot Casserole, Cheesy Potatoes, Beanie Weenies, and Hot Dog Tacos. The emphasis on cheap meats, starchy vegetables and high-fat, processed cheese is discouraging. The problem for many of these institutions is that they are working with limited staff, prepared and canned foods, and a limited set of food likes by most of the kids they are cooking for. It all adds up to the lowest common denominator of meal choices with the most appeal.
Despite what I feed my child at home, she will be fed the same foods as children who regularly eat fast food, “will only eat Mac and Cheese,” and are not served or encouraged to eat vegetables at home.
Because many of these care facilities and schools are private, nutrition information is not available. For those participating in national lunch, breakfast and food programs, reports show that foods served generally meet 60-70 percent of daily nutrition requirements and calorie requirements. However, the reported foods exceeded dietary guidelines for saturated fat.
As recently as 2005, a sampling of schools in 27 states and 11 major urban areas showed that between 80 to 90 percent of secondary schools allow children to purchase foods from vending machines, snack bars, cafeterias and school stores.
The good news is that things are improving. Rather than waiting on federal regulations, many states and individual school districts have set nutritional standards higher than those mandated by the federal government. Other tactics that schools are taking to improve the situation include; a ban on sale of all carbonated soft drinks on all California school districts that will be in place by 2009, and a mandate that all fundraising activities be nonfood as well as eliminating all branded fast food contracts by the Los Angeles school district.
More similar legislation is pending at the state and school district levels. This legislation would include standards for limiting portion sizes, a requirement to have healthy food choices at all school events, eliminating fried foods from menus, requiring more servings of fresh fruits and vegetables, and even penalizing schools financially for every meal that is lost to competitive food sales.
Clearly, the changes required in our care and education institutions are going to happen at a local level first. These changes will only continue at the insistence of parents and our active involvement in improving both the menus as school and at home.
Location, Location, Location
One of the biggest factors that determines our children’s diets is the food that is available. Studies show that children will eat healthier food choices if those choices are the primary ones available to them in the home, and away from home. Fast food chains are well aware of the value of proximity.
This is why it should come as no surprise that in a study on Chicago area schools, fast food franchises were clustered within walking distance of the schools 3 to 4 times more densely than the average across the city in general.
Nutritious choices were also less available to poorer neighborhoods with a higher population of African Americans than for more affluent areas. Similar imbalances were found for access to supermarkets and grocery stores as well as the variety and number of healthy options at retail locations. There is a significant relationship between easy access to supermarkets and increased nutrient intake.
A Broken Food Chain
An analysis on the food supply in general for America was done in 1996. The finding was that the food system as a whole did not match dietary recommendations. It contained more grains, fats and sugars than recommended and had too little fruits, vegetables and meats and dairy.
Each year, 17,000 new food products are introduced. Most of these products are processed foods because those are the foods that have the most profit. In fact, 80 cents of each American food dollar pays not for food, but for processing, distribution, labor, packaging, marketing and transportation. Minimally processed foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables provide lower profits and are thus not heavily marketed or branded.
The amount and types of foods available are not completely dependent on consumer choices. Government subsidies of large-scale agriculture as well as taxes and regulation directly impact the production of certain types of foods over others, as well as the costs of those foods. This partially explains some of the abundant use of corn and soy products, including the widespread use of high-fructose corn syrup in many foods.
Here is an interesting perspective on this issue from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy's site. It's a PDF of a report titled, "Food Without Thought: How the U.S. Farm Policy Contributes to Obesity." You can also find a link to the article and a fact sheet at the IATP site, www.iatp.org.
Culturally, our population is exposed to unrealistic body images in the media; television, movies, print, Internet. The irony is, many of these messages are sponsored by advertisement of fast foods, soda, and processed foods.
Approximately half of the commercials appearing during children’s programs are for branded foods and beverages, especially sweetened cereals and drinks, snack items, soft drinks, candy and fast food.
The food industry spends an estimated $10 billion (with a b) a year in food advertising specifically to children and youth. Only 20 percent of this amount is devoted to television and other media. The rest is used for promotional tactics such as character licensing, product placement, and in-school marketing.
As a result of such heavy marketing pressure and tie-ins to familiar child-friendly characters, on average, a child’s first request for a specific product now occurs at about two years of age. This request occurs at the supermarket 75 percent of the time. In a study of children 3-11 years of age, more than half of specific product requests during a 30-day period were for food. Foods such as desserts, candy, and sweetened cereal accounted for nearly 50 percent of the requested food items.
By the time a child reaches first grade, he is familiar with about 200 different brands. This brand awareness is developed first for such items as cereals, snacks and toys. Logically, these categories are the ones most heavily marketed to children.
It’s a lot to think about standing in the aisle of Toys ‘R Us trying to select plastic food. It’s a lot to think about as a consumer, and most importantly as a parent. Choose wisely.