My six year old son hopped off the bus, trotted through the front door, and plopped down on the living room sofa. He opened up his blue backpack, and pulled out a classroom folder, filled with his weekly works. We do this every Thursday. He and I sit together, and examine his efforts, drawings, doodles, math assignments and journal writings.
My fingers deftly thumbed through the pages until, at last, an index card fell to the floor. I examined the card for a moment, both bewildered and admittedly irked. The children in my son’s classroom had each been provided a free “kids meal” at an area fast food restaurant.
Of course, this is not the first time I have encountered this brand of insidious junk food marketing. In fact, my son had brought home a coupon for a soft serve ice cream cone at a fast food establishment the year prior. Before that, when he was merely a preschooler attending a public school program, the teacher had used fast food coupons as a reward mechanism to elicit good conduct in the classroom.
The truth is that schools have become integral to the marketing plans of a vast array of corporations, and we have now ingrained the idea that public schools can exist for private profit. Corporate motives are easy enough to discern. Not only do these marketers prefer to capture the youngest of consumers so as to instill brand loyalties, but this kind of "philanthropy" softens markets to the presence of industries demonized in the wake of an obesity epidemic amongst children.
When it comes to the state, Colorado has a long history of allowing corporate "sponsorships" to cover shortfalls in school districts' budgets: "Whether it's first graders learning to read or teenagers shopping for their first car, we can guarantee an introduction of your product and your company to these students in the traditional setting of the classroom," reads one chilling brochure for a Kids Power Marketing Conference. Fast-food companies are, as one might imagine, enthusiastically adopting the commercialism in schools by placing hallway ads and banners in view of young students, and developing targeted, branded educational materials for use in classrooms, and produced with tax-deductible dollars.
Regardless of how one feels about the current status of educational funding in the state of CO, the bigger question is whether or not the saleability of children is an appropriate mechanism to increase per pupil funds or to supplement budgetary shortfalls. Basically, the question goes a bit like this: Are you willing to commercialize your kid, support a morally dubious industry and feed your child synthetic edibles designed to re-train their palate and make them ill so as to buy, say, a new load of textbooks or nicer football uniforms? I would venture that most parents would elect to find another source of cash.
For its part, the school is often quick to observe that parents have the final say in the foods provided their children, and that it is up to mothers and fathers to exercise the personal responsibility required to keep children healthy. The question of who’s to blame for kids consuming bad food – the fast food restaurants or the parents – is a bit of a no-win blame game. Yes, certainly, parents should exercise discretion. No one believes that parents should be neglectful in the feeding and care of their kids. That, however, ignores the fact that the prevalence and ubiquity of the fast food marketer’s message makes the fight less than fair. Both have a role in stemming the tide of childhood obesity, and neither end of the blame-allocation spectrum offers much besides catharsis.
Ideally, we would remove from the sphere of influence this sort of commercialization. Kids in schools are a captive audience, and we should do our best to make the messages targeted to them ones of good health and proper nutrition. Ideally, we’d stop selling our kids. I am, however, a parent and not a legislator. As a mother, I have to be willing to set the bar higher than the status quo. Parents have to decide that their child will not be among the 90% eating fast food this month, and that our kids won’t be among the children commercialized in the classroom.
I picked up the card, and promptly tossed it in the recycling.