Being told what to eat

Worries that new guidelines will do away with school fundraisers that feature hot dogs and pizza

Sorry if you’re just learning of this now, but Big Mother’s deadline has passed.

The public had until April 30 to weigh in on updated guidelines for what kind of food should be sold or served in BC schools.

Note the word “updated.” The guidelines have been around since 2008, the year BC schools were urged to empty vending machines of junk food, refilling the slots with small bags of raisins, twigs, grass clippings and “healthy snacks” that appeared to be made of strips of compressed compost peeled from truck tires. (Ed. note: This might reflect the bias of a columnist who prefers food that A) is 98 per cent chemicals and sugar, or B) died violently.)

The good/bad list doesn’t tell parents what their children may bring to school for lunch, but it does weigh in on what should be ladled out at cafeterias or sold at school fundraising events.

It’s this last bit that has resulted in some grumbling about the proposed update, the first since 2013. Some worry more restrictive wording will end school groups’ ability to hold Hot Dog Day or Pizza Day or Deep-Fried Diabetes Day or whatever they call the fundraisers on which they depend. Replacing such food with healthier, pricier, less-appetizing fare won’t work, critics argue. No kid goes weak at the knees in anticipation of Kale Day.

“I’d like [the government] to stop policing what people want to feed their children,” a CTV story quoted the president of a Surrey parents advisory council as saying.

That goes to the (over-stressed) heart of the matter: the question who gets to say who eats what.

This isn’t a new debate. Authorities began fussing a generation ago after noticing that many young people couldn’t make it from second base to third without pausing to catch their breath en route. Several years ago, Health Canada reported that childhood obesity rates had tripled since 1980. Some blamed parents who wouldn’t let their children walk to school for fear of some mythical bogeyman, yet would pack them convenient-but-unhealthy lunches with the nutritional value and half life of enriched plutonium, washed down with “energy drinks” for athletes recovering from marathons, not math class.

This wasn’t just a Canadian thing, of course: In 2005, during food guru Jamie Oliver’s campaign to replace deep-fried, processed British school food with healthy mouse, a couple of mothers were filmed smuggling burgers, fish and chips and pop to children through a school ground fence. It was like watching inmates’ friends throw contraband over the prison wall. The resulting parents-vs-government brouhaha stretched all the way to Parliament.

Here’s the part that gets me, though: no matter where the debate rages, it’s always exclusively about kids. We’re happy to wag our gravy-stained fingers at children, inflicting rules on them, but are less willing to dictate diet when it comes to the rest of us. We are quite content to be Nanny State Stalinists when it comes to government telling students what’s good for them, but try to prescribe what adults may shove down their pie holes and we turn into You Can Have My Bacon When You Can Pry It From My Cold Greasy Hands libertarians.

Why the hypocrisy? It’s not as though this is a youth-only issue. Society-wide (emphasis on the wide) we are in a crisis of corpulence. Manufacturers have had to increase the size of everything from car seats to coffins to accommodate our rapidly broadening butts.

In fact, it can be argued that adults are in even greater need of intervention. While the Public Health Agency of Canada estimates 30 per cent of children between the ages of five and 17 were overweight or obese in 2017, that was actually a drop from 2004, when the figure applied to 35 per cent of those aged two to 17. Canadian adults have trended in the other direction: 64 per cent were too heavy in 2017, an increase of five pounds, er, percentage points from 2004.

But no, just as it’s always the old people sending the young people to war, adults can’t bear to bring themselves into the crosshairs. We don’t want anyone touching our office vending machines, or our pop-and-a-burger workplace fundraisers, or the buttery sauce at Chez Cardiaque, or the Montreal smoked meat sandwich with sautéed mushrooms and onions in the legislature dining room, or — egad! — the pizzas that newsrooms traditionally wolf down on election night. Note that BC’s school food guidelines don’t apply to fare sold exclusively to adults.

We all need to eat better. Emphasis on the all.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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