A new Ontario report on the fight against childhood obesity places too much responsibility on food manufacturers and restaurants as the source of the problem and not enough on schools and families. The report from the Healthy Kids Panels recommends things such as calorie counts on restaurant meals and a ban on the advertising of junk food aimed at kids, but it puts relatively little onus on parents and their children to get more exercise and make smart choices. A better balance is needed.
The imbalance is plainly visible on the two-page summary of recommendations in the report, which was produced by an 18-member panel set up by the Ontario government last year. The majority of the 35 recommendations can safely be described as vague, such as, “Empower parents, caregivers and youth,” or “Leverage and build on what we already have.” There are also calls to maintain current funding allocated to obesity prevention and to support research into the causes of childhood obesity.
The report moves away from such niceties and becomes downright specific when it addresses what it refers to as “the food environment.” It calls for outright bans on the marketing of junk food and fast foods to children under 12, and on the sale of candy bars and sugary pop in the checkout lines in stores and supermarkets. It also wants the government to require all restaurants to list the calories in each and every menu item, a potentially costly obligation. And it says the government should provide subsidies to local farmers to support what amounts to the locavore movement, and also subsidize the opening of grocery stores in poorer neighbourhoods that are lousy with fast food outlets but lacking in fruit and vegetable vendors.
There is no question anymore that the rise of fast food outlets and the prevalence of processed foods in our lives have contributed to a dramatic increase in adult and childhood obesity over the past 30 years. But these concrete recommendations, which Ontario Health Minister Deb Matthews has suggested she will implement, are not matched by anything nearly so alarmist when it comes to the responsibilities of adults.
The report carefully blames time constraints, lack of knowledge and the simplicity of ordering fast food for parents’ tendency to serve takeout pizza for supper, a supper that is eaten in front of the television, a device that also gets blamed for obesity in the report. The report also makes the startling revelation that children in Ontario schools are only required to get 20 minutes of “Daily Physical Activity,” and that even that tiny amount isn’t always observed for weak reasons that include teachers saying they can’t fit it in.
Where is the onus on parents to say no to a chocolate bar at the checkout, or to demand more physical education at school, or to push the kids out the door on weekends, or to go the extra half-mile required to cook fresh foods for dinner and serve them at a table? The Healthy Kids Panel invents a world filled with helpless, ill-informed adults who are at the mercy of elements they can’t control, and who can only be saved by government. That is as strikingly unhealthy a message as any TV ad for potato chips.