Friday, October 09, 2009

Unhealthy Policy?

Dr. Gilbert Ross has an interesting Op-ed piece in today's NY Daily News that critiques the DOE decision to fill the school vending machines with only healthier snacks: "This week, the city's Department of Education is rolling out new rules for beverage and snack-food vending machines in public schools. Drinks will now be allowed to have no more than 25 calories per 8 ounces - and no artificial sweeteners or caffeine or carbonation. Drinks will be, in effect, restricted to water, seltzer or unsweetened tea. Snacks will be limited not only in calories, but also in the fraction of calories in them that comes from fat and sugar."

The doctor doesn't think that this is going to do much good-and even might do harm in the process: "These rules are wholly unscientific. Don't the city's nutrition nannies know that all calories count the same - whether from fat, sugar or protein? When did they decide that artificial sweeteners were "unhealthy" too? Did they get that off of fringe Internet sites? And what does carbonation have to do with anything? Is there a fear that the little bubbles might burn children's tongues?"

Is this science in the public interest? "Allegedly aimed at the rampant obesity among our kids, these draconian regulations are wrong-headed and counterproductive. That's right - they will more likely hinder than help the fight against obesity. Here's why. The schools' lapsed vending contract (with Snapple) brought in big bucks, which helped fund various activities, including physical education and extracurricular athletics. The new contract is expected to bring in less money because the snacks sold will be "healthier" (read: less popular). With budget cutbacks already threatening to eliminate many elective programs, that means there will be less new money to defray cutbacks in athletics and other school-based exercise - thus reducing one of the key ingredients in a healthy lifestyle."

But at least the kids will eat better, right? "Will these onerous restrictions lead to a black market in junk food, where a young entrepreneur standing in the shadows sells salty snacks and real Diet Coke to his peers, while being ever vigilant for the footsteps of the food police? Along with the de facto ban on student-sponsored bake sales, the whole campaign smacks of political agendas and moral rectitude substituting for sound nutritional science, wielded against perceived "unhealthy" foods."

When we were teaching so many years ago, the kids never ate the school lunch-choosing instead to bring chips, soda, and "nowalaters" (Now and Later candy) into class to snack on. The more you try to restrict choice, the more likely you will find a pushback-and we predict that the current healthy experiment will eventually prove unhealthy to the goal of getting our school kids more trim and, well, healthier.