Much has been made of the recent child obesity epidemic sweeping our nation. Turn on the news once a week and you’ll see at least ten stories about how kids aren’t getting enough exercise and eating too much bad food. All of these stories place the blame on the kids and to a much lesser extent, the parents. If you go to an online version of an article you’ll see comments along the lines of “parents should beat fat kids until they start exercising.” No one seems to ever stick up for the kids in any of this. This is really not surprising. It’s always easier for adults to blame the children for the problems the adults themselves created. That’s right, I said it. The blame for the current crisis lies in the lap of the adults in charge.
The most common thing we hear in these stories is that kids aren’t playing outside anymore because they’re shutting themselves in the house playing Xbox and that the parents aren’t making them go outside. The thing about that is, in many places (especially our inner cities), the parents can’t let their children play outside thanks to all the gangbangers and drive by shootings. Where are the police who are supposed to be making sure our streets are safe? They’re nowhere to be found most of the time. The gangs control neighborhoods because protecting people has taken a back seat to writing as many tickets as possible to generate money for the government in terms of police priorities.
You could respond by saying, “kids can go to the playgrounds” but the thing about that is that there are no playgrounds. They’re getting removed because some parent threatened to sue somebody because their child got a skinned knee or some BS. Even if they weren’t being taken down by cities left and right, they still don’t help the teenagers.
There are parks however, there are problems there too. Teenagers can’t really go to parks anymore. They’re routinely stalked by cops who don’t seem to have anything better to do than to stalk teenagers because they think they might vandalize something. Worse still, parks are taking down basically anything that attracts teenagers. In a suburb by my hometown a couple years ago, the basketball hoops at a local park got taken down because some old ladies heard a couple kids being loud or using *gasp* HORROR OF UNSPEAKABLE HORRORS! They heard those evil basketball players use “bad” words! Or they say basketball hoops attract gang members (read: minority young people) and demand that cities take the hoops down (leaving kids nothing to do but join the gangs they’re afraid of). This sort of story is pretty common and it’s a growing trend. This is again in spite of the concerns that kids aren’t playing outside enough.
What if you’re a private citizen and you’re trying to build a place where kids can hang out after school, like a skate park or something? Well good luck! You’d have better luck trying to get zoning for a toxic waste dump than you would getting a permit to build a hangout of any sort for teens. A bunch of old codgers would show up at a city council meeting screaming “NOT IN MY BACKYARD!” Even if for some bizarre reason, like say all the members of the anti-teen crowd missed the meeting or something, and you managed to get your hangout approved and built, be prepared for the police to constantly harass you and your clientele based on quote unquote “suspicious behavior” (read: somebody whining that the decibel level of the neighborhood approached one).
Our society has effectively shooed young people away from playgrounds, parks, and basically any outdoor alternatives to those eeeeevil video games, televisions, and computers. At least our government isn’t actively making things worse on the diet front of diet and exercise right? Oh wait, our government is doing precisely that. For years health advocates have been concerned about fatty food advertisements on children’s TV or characters like Ronald McDonald. It is only recently that these advocates have actually started actively questioning what our schools are passing off as “food.” Before that, the conversation vis a vis schools and food was strictly about vending machines. People spend more on dog food than our schools spend on lunches for children. And the dog food is probably healthier. The food students get is usually some sort of greasy grade X meat, possibly some potato product like greasy French fries or something that the lunch people say are mashed potatoes but smell like a dead animal. They serve pizza with cheese that does not look, smell, or taste like it is fit for human consumption. The grease in the pizza looks like it could actually glow in the dark. Breakfast at school is just as bad.
I know what you’re thinking. “Parents can prepare lunches for their kid, right?” This assumes that parents are financially able to afford lunches. The school lunch program was created to help those families who couldn’t afford lunches for their kids. Don’t they deserve better? Even if parents can afford to do so, many school districts have policies forbidding students from eating food from home. Really. Often the schools justify the policy by saying they don’t want the poor kids to feel bad or that the school food is healthier (do they seriously think they are fooling anyone?). Of course the real reason is that the schools don’t want to compete.
The schools exacerbate this problem in other ways. In my old school, and schools across America, students are given very little time to actually eat the “food”. The typical lunch period in a school is about 20 minutes. Unless a student is one of the lucky first 5 in line, they can expect to be waiting in line for about 10 minutes. Meaning they have to basically inhale their food unless they want to be tardy (and face a draconian punishment like not being able to walk across the stage at graduation). Science has shown that people who eat fast gain more weight. Our schools are actively forcing a habit on children that fosters early weight gain while paying lip service to the concept of helping children learn to eat right (by giving children a week’s detention for a Jolly Rancher in a lunch box for instance). I personally have had to retrain myself to slow down eating in college and know many college freshmen who are doing the same thing.
Remember the whole part about kids not playing outside anymore? Part of that is thanks to the schools. Kids are getting more homework than ever before. Kids can’t play outside when they have to do a large art project that is worth an absurd amount of their grade and has little to do with the actual course to boot. Meanwhile, students are getting less and less sleep as a result of their evenings being monopolized by busywork. They have to get up earlier for school too (often around six or seven). Science has shown that people who get less sleep tend to eat higher calorie, higher fat, foods. Here again is an example of schools making problems worse.
Schools seem hell bent on monopolizing the free time of their students during summers too. Remember the bike riding, baseball games, pickup basketball games, or swimming that you used to do in the summer when you were a kid? You could forget about that if you were a kid today. You have too many book reports, science projects, art projects, math problems, etc. to do to even think about playing outside. Clearly, when educators talk about helping children eat right and exercise, that’s all it is: Worthless talk.
If our society wants to seriously fight childhood obesity, it’s going to have to change. It will have to stop trying to shoo young people indoors at every opportunity. Schools will have to make their food better and give them more time actually eat it. More importantly, they will have to stop trying to monopolize every waking hour of their students’ lives.
This article is dedicated to a teacher in my high school who, in the face of possibly getting fired, stuck up for the students of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District. One school board meeting, he brought in a lunch from the school cafeteria, brought it to the board members in front of the people. He dared them to eat it and when they didn’t, he said “If you won’t eat it, why would you give it to our students?”