Junk Food Studies Ignore Parent Responsibility

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Last week a new report on fast food made national news, the most comprehensive study into fast food nutrition and marketing. It found that only a small fraction of possible kids’ meals combinations were healthy for pre-schoolers, and lambasted advertising to children:

Fast food advertisers spend a staggering amount on media to draw customers into their restaurants to consume this primarily unhealthy fare: more than $4.2 billion in the United States in 2009… As a result, young people viewed enormous amounts of fast food advertising. Every day, the average preschooler saw 2.8 fast food ads on television, the average child saw 3.5, and the average teen saw 4.7. Children were exposed to more than 1,200 traditional fast food ads per year while teens saw and heard more than 2,000.

There are plenty of statistics and facts in the report about childhood obesity and advertising — as well as a glaring oversight. It’s a simple, basic truth that the 137-page report carefully avoids addressing: children don’t buy the food they eat.

It doesn’t matter if children see one McDonald’s ad a month, or thousands per day. All the advertising in the world cannot put fat and sodium-filled Happy Meals in kids’ mouths. Children (defined in this study as ages 2 to 11) have neither the income nor the mobility to independently go to the nearest fast food outlet and buy junk food.

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What should we as a society do about this problem? The paper concludes with a list of recommendations, including, “McDonald’s must stop marketing directly to preschoolers…Fast food restaurants must establish meaningful standards for child-targeted marketing…Fast food restaurants must do more to develop and promote lower-calorie and more nutritious menu items.”

On and on the suggestions go, pages of things that the fast food industry must do to combat this dire health hazard.

And the parent’s role in all this? There’s about two sentences, buried on page 136, that encourage parents to “learn about healthy calorie and sodium consumption for their children and find the best options available at restaurants.”

The same problem plagued a report last year about the sugary breakfast cereal marketed to children. According to a Time magazine story last year, “The Rudd findings…show that each year preschoolers (ages 2 to 5) see an average of 507 cereal ads that are designed to appeal to kids.”

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The article neglects to point out that preschoolers can’t buy breakfast cereal. When’s the last time you saw a toddler standing in line at the supermarket checkout grasping a $10 bill and a box of Lucky Charms?

The reports, both issued by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale, seem to show a systematic bias in minimizing parental responsibility regarding children’s diets.

Do ads make kids want things? Of course they do. But parents, not fast food chains, have near-total control over what their kids eat. If parents can’t say no to little Billy when he says he wants a Happy Meal, that’s not McDonald’s fault; that’s poor parenting.

It’s obvious why these reports focus almost exclusively on the fast food business. People hate advertisements and big corporations, and the fast food industry is a big target. The reports are written for parents, and those parents are unlikely to accept and embrace a study that blames them for what their kids eat (“Our best advice is to not feed your child junk food”).

It’s much easier (and more socially acceptable) to place the blame on corporations and advertisers.

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Yet while the Rudd Center is busy blaming television and Ronald McDonald for what kids eat, parents are driving their kids to McDonald’s, ordering unhealthy food, and placing it in front of their kids.

Photo: A three-year-old boy of Hayward, Calif., eats french fries from his Happy Meal at a McDonald’s restaurant in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)