Having watched with horror my eldest child being inaugurated into the world of junk food via our country's public schools, I found myself caught up in an Associated Press story about the ineffectiveness of nutritional education. Apparently, the federal government spends more than $1 billion a year on nutritional education programs for children, despite a number of scientific studies that suggest these programs just don't work. Basically, kids eat what tastes good to them and if they have been raised to experience Cheetos Flamin' Hot with Limon Crunchy Snacks and a Yoo-hoo as a supremely satisfying meal, all the well-meaning charts and graphs in the world won't change their eating habits. In other words, American children are like American adults, only more so -- threats of a shortened life span are not sufficiently scary to make them choose the whole wheat toast over the apple fritter. We are creatures of our culture, and our culture says super-size me now, worry and medicate me later.
With the childhood obesity rates rising to above 16 percent and estimates that nearly 50 percent of children in North and South America will be obese by 2010, it's no wonder that the government is attempting to teach good nutrition. But the failure of nutritional programs reminds me of the failure of abstinence programs. On a grand scale, these national campaigns that promote behavioral changes through education are but shallow stabs at social engineering compared to far more influential forces -- consumer culture, family traditions (and the waning of them) and even the biology of our taste buds (some studies suggest that what pregnant mothers eat influences the taste buds of their babies for life).
Even within the school system, where most of the nutritional education takes place, children are often barraged by contradictory messages. After observing the pedagogy of bribery applied by the teachers and staff in my child's school (in one of the crunchiest, most health-conscious school districts in the nation) -- where there's a treat for every occasion and a few more for good performance -- I wondered about the hypocrisy of turning around and offering special classes that promote healthful eating habits. Sure, our school may have posters of fruits and vegetables on the lunchroom walls, but when all special occasions must be accompanied by unhealthful foods, can you blame kids for following their hunger pangs instead of the FDA pyramid?