The coming junk-food wars

First it was Big Tobacco. Now health advocates are targeting ‘Big Food,’ and schools are the first battleground.

The Chico Unified School District has long been trying to break up the marriage of children and junk food, says Joel Adema, food services supervisor. The district alternates homemade pizza with Domino’s takeout and goes with fresh over processed foods whenever possible.

The Chico Unified School District has long been trying to break up the marriage of children and junk food, says Joel Adema, food services supervisor. The district alternates homemade pizza with Domino’s takeout and goes with fresh over processed foods whenever possible.

Photo by Tom Angel

Chomp down on a Big N’ Tasty with Cheese.

Make that a Double Whopper with a side of Biggie Fries, or why not a Western Bacon Cheeseburger with Great Biggie Fries! Better yet, think outside the bun: Order a Double Burrito Supreme or maybe a Super Supreme Stuffed Crust Pizza. To wash it down, how about an extra-large soda or even a 52-ounce X-treme Gulp?

Because we think young. And we deserve a break today.

Don’t bother us: We’re eating.

Every day, hundreds of millions of people across the globe purchase literally billions of such items and consume them often in super-sized quantities. Americans spend about $120 billion a year on the stuff. Ultimately, in three short decades, this style of eating has transformed the American diet by making inexpensive, tasty meals easily available to all of us, anytime and everywhere.

In the process, fast food also has helped revise the population’s health forecast—and not in a righteous way. Most of these food products are high in fat, loaded with sugar, or both. You don’t have to be a nutritionist to recognize that this simple fact, coupled with an increasingly TV-watching and sedentary public, has fueled what has become a major public-health crisis in America, an epidemic of fat.

A particularly chilling report from the Center for Disease Control described obesity as having “spread with the speed and dispersion characteristics of a communicable-disease epidemic.” Just last month, that same organization found that the number of overweight adults had increased from 56 percent to 65 percent of the population. Some 25 percent of all American kids are now viewed as overweight; 15 percent of them are considered severely overweight or obese.

The fact that kids are at risk has caused a public stir.

Parents are coming to realize they’re raising the most overweight, unfit, unhealthy generation of children in American history and are beginning to get anxious. Hospital costs related to childhood obesity have more than tripled in the past 20 years, and obese and overweight children are turning up at medical clinics with health problems that used to be limited to people their parents’ age: high cholesterol, type II diabetes, high blood pressure and even heart disease.

In California, a Public Health Institute study found that only three out of 10 adolescents were getting enough physical activity, twice as many adolescents were in heavier weight categories than would be expected, and the risks were highest for low-income and African-American and Latino children. And the numbers keep climbing to super-sized proportions.

What’s a public-health advocate to do?

Declare war.

Right now, some of the very groups that targeted the tobacco companies are gearing up to go into combat once again, this time against junk food. Instead of “Big Tobacco,” this fight will be waged against “Big Food.”

The early battles, they say, will be fought in the schools.

Last year in Sacramento, the state Legislature passed SB 19, the comprehensive bill from Sen. Martha Escutia, D-Montebello, that aimed to increase physical exercise for kids and limit the availability of junk food in elementary and middle schools. Meanwhile, efforts to target on-campus sales of sodas—with their high-calorie, no-nutrition content—seem to be a high-level priority for public-health organizers around California. When the behemoth Los Angeles Unified School District announced a little more than a month ago that it would ban the future sale of soft drinks on campus, many people saw the decision as a consequential victory, an early warning shot across the bow of Big Food.

Of course, the food industry does not plan to take any of this lying down, not with billions of dollars at stake. Powerful organizations such as the National Soft Drink Association (representing soda giants such as PepsiCo and Coca-Cola) and the Grocery Manufacturers of America (the world’s largest association of food and beverage products) have fought legislation both in Washington, D.C., and in Sacramento that would regulate the marketing or sales of fatty foods and sodas at schools.

The food industry is prepared for battle. Several manufacturers have formed a coalition that’s reportedly set to roll out an ad campaign depicting health activists as “food police” who want to tell you and your family what you can and can’t eat. Also, some of the junk-food giants, such as McDonald’s and Frito-Lay, are making wise, pre-emptive moves by modifying their foods to contain less harmful fat.

But so far none of this has deterred the health advocates who have lobbied school-board members. Further legislative actions are being considered. How-to manuals are being written. Conferences are being planned. Even Ralph Nader, wanting in on the ground floor of this health-related activism, made headlines in Europe last spring for referring to Big Macs as “weapons of mass destruction.”

Make no mistake: The junk-food wars are coming.

The famished lunch-goers were presented with bright-colored banners, bountiful fruit bowls and display cases full of food choices as they entered the restorative, nutritious world of Chef Al Schieder. Welcomed by the aroma of freshly baked pizza and calzones, the diners also were attracted by the visual allure of homemade pasta, taco salads and just-rolled sushi and the sumptuous offerings of Southwestern burritos, muffuletta sandwiches and veggie rice bowls.

But Schieder’s dining establishment was no courtyard café serving trendy yuppies. It was a high-school cafeteria. The customers were teenagers—with their boisterous voices, vibrant energy and colossal backpacks—who had just escaped fourth period.

Former Sacramento restaurateur Al Scheider believes kids can be taught to love healthful foods. He thinks he’s proved his theory in a Folsom High School cafeteria.

Photo by Larry Dalton

No standard school cafeteria fare there. No mystery meat with gross gravy. No instant mashed potatoes with squishy peas. No Jell-O with bananas. No syrupy soda. No way.

As director of child nutrition for the Folsom Cordova Unified School District near Sacramento, Schieder has fashioned menus for his district that are as healthful as they can be while still accomplishing the difficult task of attracting young eaters. “We taught nutrition on the one hand and fed them French fries with the other,” Schieder said. “It had to change.” Schieder said his meals cost $2.50 each (he serves 7,000 of them district-wide every day) and always include milk and fruit.

Though advised by many that no school cafeteria could survive without food à la carte and snack foods, Schieder dumped the fries, 86’d the Doritos and dispensed with the Twinkies and soda. Instead, he emphasized new and healthful recipes that all were within USDA guidelines. The kids insist on pizza (no kidding), so he fashioned a nourishing pizza. The cafeteria started pulling in crowds, and the district, which used to lose about $200,000 each year on lunches, netted more than $300,000 in the 2001-02 school year under the new healthful and tasty regime.

Schieder’s success has attracted fame for him and the district. He has been written about in Food Management magazine and other trade publications. At last count, administrators, food directors and child nutritionists from 50 school districts—including many in the Sacramento region—had toured his environment in hopes of learning about his healthful school meals.

But trouble soon brewed near Schieder’s kitchen, and then it bubbled to the top.

Just across the grassy quad, in the shadow of the complex that houses his health-conscious cafeteria, lurks a junk-food lover’s paradise. Known as the Snack Bar, the place sells students a wide assortment of junk food, the very stuff Schieder won’t allow in his cafeteria.

The junk-food outlet caused a half-dozen parents to show up at a recent Folsom Cordova school board meeting. They came armed with statistics about childhood obesity and how students need good nutrition to do well in school and athletics. Basically, the parents declared war on the student Snack Bar and said that too many students consume its offerings instead of Schieder’s well-balanced meals.

Indeed, on a recent Friday, students lined up seven deep at noontime to buy soda and jumbo-sized bags of chips at the Snack Bar. Presumably, for some of the students, this was lunch.

When you’re talking about the Snack Bar, you’re speaking the language of Bob Jarman, the school’s student-activities director, an affable 28-year employee of the district. Jarman, who arranged for the school to enter a 10-year contract with PepsiCo in 1998, makes no apologies. He explained that the soda company installed vending machines on campus, furnished the Snack Bar with fountain equipment and installed various scoreboards and marquees on campus valued at $131,000. Now, each year, the student body receives a 35-percent commission on the gross revenue from all vending machines.

In the 2001-02 school year, the arrangement, along with the revenue from other snack sales, netted a profit of about $55,000 for Folsom High School’s student body activities, including athletics, music, choir, clubs and drama productions.

But the complaining parents do not seem to care about the money. Besides, they think the extracurricular programs could be funded in other ways. Vicky Berends, a Folsom parent who works with a health-advocacy group called Project LEAN, attended the school board meeting to voice her concern that the Snack Bar was pulling kids away from Schieder’s healthful school lunches. “They sell Ding Dongs, Doritos, 20-ounce Pepsi and Skittles,” she said. “Just why are we doing this? I think we need to follow in the footsteps of L.A. Unified and Oakland and eliminate soda outright.”

Another Folsom High School parent, Susan Goodman, said she wants action on the matter without delay. “I would like to see them ban soda and junk food outright. We tell [the kids] not to do drugs, not to drive at 80 miles an hour. … Why don’t we have the guts to tell them we won’t sell junk food at school?”

The board took the safe road after the parents’ presentation and decided to gather more information before considering action. But the parents aren’t likely to let the board off that easily. Board member Jim McGowan said he’s sympathetic to the issue but that “money sure is tight.”

But students aren’t so wishy-washy. They simply don’t like what the parents are doing.

When the school bell sounded, Jarman got ready to begin his leadership class, located in a schoolroom just adjacent to the disputed Snack Bar. The room quickly filled up with 48 clamorous teenagers, most of them elected school leaders who briskly arranged themselves at group tables with Buffy-like cool. The students seemed already aware that some parents were getting set for battle, and, almost uniformly, they disagreed with a soda ban.

“Part of being in high school is growing up and making decisions on your own,” said one teenager, Amanda. “We all know that soda isn’t healthy, but they shouldn’t take away our right to choose.”

Another student got general applause from the roomful of teens when she basically called out the parents. “If parents get their way in revoking the Snack Bar, that would be outrageous!” said Nikki. “The kids will do it anyway. … You can’t compare soda to tobacco; soda will not kill you.”

In the Chico Unified School District, the cafeteria crew has been waging war against unhealthful meals for years. Their opponents? The mass media, parents and whatever else it is in society that makes kids reach for potato chips instead of papaya.

Joel Adema, food services supervisor for the CUSD, said the district has been trying for some time to offer healthful and tasty meals—even if the kids end up piecing together something that’s not so balanced.

“The big thing is trying to make some changes and reduce the fat in the diet and having alternative choices available,” Adema said. “All we can do is encourage them to make the right choices, buy the healthy foods, try to stay away from the high-fat items. … We offer that, but we can’t make them eat it.”

At Chico Junior High School, where hundreds of children converge on the cafeteria at lunchtime, a sign alerts student diners: “Homemade pizza will be served instead of Domino’s.” If they don’t like that, they can go for the salad bar or head back outside the cafeteria to the snack bar, where they can purchase nachos (the cheese-in-a-packet is real, Adema said, “not Cheez Whiz"), French fries and jerky. Food services has one vending machine full of milk, juice and water, which is right next to school-operated machines with brand-name soda, sports drinks and juices. “They kids make good choices,” he said. “If you offer [milk, water or juice], they buy it.”

Adema buys local produce and other goods whenever he can, and corn dogs and frozen burritos are no-no’s. “We’re trying to get away from some of the processed products,” he said. “We just can’t stop it altogether. The kids will rebel.”

Folsom High School Student Activities Director Bob Jarman applaudes Scheider’s innovative cafeteria but also defends a 10-year contract with PepsiCo and the sale of junk food at the school’s Snack Bar.

Photo by Larry Dalton

That task is much easier at the elementary and junior-high schools than at high schools, where cafeterias have to compete with the numerous lunch options opened to them by virtue of the “open campus” setup. At Pleasant Valley High School, Subway sandwiches, pizza and Mexican food are just a short walk away. For Chico High students, the entire downtown is their banquet table.

“If we don’t offer something they’re going to eat, they’ll go off campus,” Adema said.

In 2001-02, the CUSD’s food services, which is supposed to break even, lost $120,000, covered by the department’s fund balance. That was due to increased costs of energy and food and other factors rather than decreased sales, said Adema, who is in the midst of a profitability plan to reduce costs and waste and turn things around.

Last year, the CUSD secured an 18-month grant for nutritional-education purposes, which paid for a curriculum and “roving” salad bars that can be carted from school to school. The salad bar, Adema said, “has gone real well.”

The bottom line, Adema said, is, “good eating habits start at home.”

A bit of background: Twenty years ago, kids drank two times more milk than soda. Today that’s reversed. Soft drinks are big business and generate more than $50 billion in annual sales in the United States alone.

The changeover has come about, in large part, because of “pouring rights,” a soda-marketing strategy launched in the mid-1990s that targeted schools for exclusive contracts. The contracts usually involve large lump-sum payments or donations to schools in return for exclusive rights to vending machines or cafeteria sales. A percentage of the profits is churned back into the schools to help food service departments break even or fund student activities. Something like 250 school districts across the country have signed such contracts.

Sacramento Unified is not one of them. In 1999, the district turned down a controversial $2 million PepsiCo contract that would have given that company exclusive rights to sell its products in vending machines and cafeterias on Sacramento campuses.

However salient, that victory was not all it was cracked up to be in the media, say local nutrition experts. Most of the middle and high schools still sell soda based on individual arrangements with one of the two soda giants, PepsiCo or Coca-Cola. Roseville Joint Unified School District signed a $1.2 million contract with Pepsi a few years back. All the high schools and most of the middle schools in the San Juan Unified School District have individual contracts. El Dorado has a six-figure, multi-year soda contract, and Grant Unified School District remains on a long-term contract with Coca-Cola. And, despite Schieder and his healthful cafeteria, Cordova and Folsom High Schools both have long-term contracts with Pepsi.

In Chico, Randy Meeker, the assistant superintendent in charge of business services for the CUSD, said the idea of going in with Coke or Pepsi hasn’t intrigued staff or trustees. “It’s been talked about before, and we’ve chosen not to do it.”

The soda machines on campus also contain juices and raise money for the individual schools or student bodies. “The students are benefiting from the profits, but the students are also able to access a variety of drinks,” Meeker said.

He believes the CUSD’s approach is different from that of many schools in the state, where cafeterias furnish soda on tap “just like you’d find in McDonald’s.”

Carbonated water and 10 teaspoons of sugar. The basic ingredients of a regular-sized soda—as revealed in a 1999 report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest—may surprise regular drinkers of the beverage. But Mark Lemieux, nutrition services director for the sprawling Sacramento City Unified School District, knows exactly what’s in the beverage. “It’s just sugar and water,” he said. “It’s not a wise food choice.”

Lemieux reports that his district soon will consider whether its wants to adopt a policy banning sodas altogether. “On the surface, it looks like a small issue, an easy one,” he said, shaking his head. “But it isn’t. There are lots of ramifications. When you remove an item that generates revenues, you have to consider the consequences.”

But fear of losing revenue didn’t stop the Los Angeles district.

That city’s school board, representing the second-largest district in the country, with 730,000 kids, voted unanimously in late August to ban the sale of soda in school cafeterias and student snack bars. This, despite the student-raised point that kids have come to rely on their soda “pick-up,” as one sophomore put it, just as much as parents and teachers seem to rely on their morning coffee boost. Nevertheless, starting in 2004, vending machines at LAUSD may offer only water, milk and beverages that contain at least 50 percent juice.

The board also set up a task force to look into mitigating the loss of soda funds. The action followed similar ones by about 30 smaller districts in the country and state, including Oakland Unified School District, which enacted a junk-food ban that went even further. But the LAUSD ban has been seen as crucial because of the size and influence of the district.

“L.A. was a watershed moment,” said Dan Hackman, a policy analyst for the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. “It was remarkable and important. It’s absolute proof that there’s a momentum building to create a healthy school environment.”

A year ago last summer, during a jam-packed Capitol hearing on the subject of childhood obesity, Senator Escutia announced her bill, SB 19. It sets nutritional requirements for certain foods sold at elementary and middle schools and provides grants of between $4,000 and $25,000 to school districts to develop policies on nutrition and school-based physical activities. Though it drew strong opposition from a coalition of food and beverage companies, this bill passed through the fires of the Legislature and will be enforceable beginning in January 2003.

One moving moment at that hearing was when a 17-year-old named Jessica testified that the lunch choices at her Sacramento high school were hamburgers, buffalo wings, French fries, chicken nuggets and pizza. Her weight at the time of the hearing was in the 200-pound range. “I have class at 7:30 in the morning,” she said, “I usually go to McDonald’s and get breakfast there. After classes, I grab the closest thing—chips and soda—then I’m off to a club meeting.”

As it goes for Jessica, so it goes for millions of other schoolchildren.

Melissa Guajardo, of the Health Education Council, sees important public-health parallels between the fight against Big Food and the earlier one against Big Tobacco.

Photo by Larry Dalton

The 30-second spot opens with a soft lens on an adoring yuppie father cooing over his innocent, gurgling infant. Next, comes a woman’s voice-over—presumably the voice of the child’s mom. “There will be a first step,” she intones, “a first word … and, of course a first French fry.” The scene fades to the golden arches and a French fry bowed into the shape of smile.

“The first French fry,” as the commercial became known in marketing circles, ran in prime time during the widely watched Summer Olympics. The commercial was interspersed with a similar one that featured Ronald McDonald successfully calming a wailing infant when its dad couldn’t manage the trick.

Public-health advocates went ballistic.

“Here we have skyrocketing childhood obesity, and McDonald’s is targeting kids!” said Gary Ruskin, director of a group called Commercial Alert, a Ralph Nader spin-off organization. Health advocates decried the message that kids could begin eating fast foods at an early age. As advocates are well aware, it was tobacco advertising to the young that finally swayed Congress to increase regulation in that industry about three decades ago.

In his recent bestseller, Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser details how the industry spends billions on mass marketing, with kids as a prime target. Maybe this is why, he writes, the golden arches are more widely recognized around the world than the Christian cross. It doesn’t help that in many schools fast foods are synonymous with school lunch. In fact, a survey of California high schools in 2000 found that 95 percent of them sold à la carte fast foods from big-name franchises such as Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.

Marion Nestle, chair of the Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at New York University, published a book this year named Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. The book explores her views about how the food industry uses the political process and unfair marketing methods to influence what people eat. The amount of purchasing power children have is huge in American society, she writes, with kids from 6 to 19 now making $485 billion worth of purchasing decisions a year.

“It is no wonder that food companies view schoolchildren as an unparalleled marketing opportunity,” said Nestle, who also writes at length about the caloric downside, given the obesity epidemic, of the food industry’s current marketing strategy to super-size food items (i.e., increase portion size, especially of fries and sodas) in order to super-size profits.

Nestle’s more academic Food Politics and Schlosser’s journalistic Fast Food Nation became a sort of one-two punch in the junk-food war that provided ammunition and a rallying cry for public-health advocates to go to battle. Both authors suggested that the parallels between Big Tobacco and Big Food are too obvious to overlook.

“For a long time, it was smoking,” said Melissa Guajardo, a nutrition project coordinator based in the peaceable, creekside West Sacramento offices of the Health Education Council. “That campaign taught us a lot,” she said. Like other people in her field, Guajardo—a slight, deliberate woman—is cautious with the tobacco analogy and understands the risk of oversimplifying when it comes to causes of obesity, for which the cure often requires a total lifestyle change involving both food and exercise. “With food, it’s not so direct as with tobacco. You can’t make the same biological connection. But there are similarities.”

Hackman, the policy analyst, said he sees parallels to tobacco, too. “There’s a whole industry that makes a lot of money contributing to the problem” by promoting high-fat, high-sugar foods, especially to children, he said. “They’ve created an environment that makes it difficult for kids to make a healthy choice. … How many ads promote cool, hip orange consumption?”

Hackman added, “Schools are an important first step. But this is a multi-year, multi-stage battle.”

California’s Project LEAN, the group that was instrumental in the recent LAUSD victory, will release a how-to manual for citizens, parents and public-health educators soon based on the group’s victory in Los Angeles. The manual will be about how to get sodas out of schools.

The group’s thinking is that where California goes the rest of the country will follow.

However, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, with its annual U.S. sales of $460 billion, will do its best to see that this doesn’t happen. The GMA regularly lobbies Congress and state houses against legislation that would restrict campus vending machines or schoolchildren’s access to snack foods in any way. The GMA lobbied in Sacramento against passage of Escutia’s SB 19 and issued a statement last month that the LAUSD soda ban is “counterproductive in the fight against childhood obesity.”

Another development worth noting: Many food-industry giants, ostensibly seeing the writing on the wall, have taken steps to make their foods less dangerous, if not exactly healthful. Soon, McDonald’s will launch a new method of cooking fries that contain 40 percent less “trans fat” oils, which are believed to be an extremely harmful type of fat. Frito-Lay, the maker of snack chips including Doritos, recently announced that it would eliminate this type of fat from its products and offer more reduced-fat snacks.

But, at Sacramento Unified’s Nutrition Services Department, regardless of his concern about soda revenues, Lemieux laughed when asked where he thought this food battle would go. “I think non-nutritious foods will be prohibited in California, and it will slowly spread across the country,” he predicted in a quick decree.

Public-health advocates would love to agree.

As noon approached at the Folsom High School cafeteria, and yet another throng of starving teenagers hustled into their uniquely healthful eating space, Schieder weighed in about the inevitability of a junk-food war and the wave of school bans on soda. “I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. Change is always difficult in an established environment. … But it’s coming. The storm is coming.”

As the teenagers lined up, they were likely oblivious to the forces swirling around them—far more worried about their fifth-period geometry test, where they left their jackets, what they’d wear to the Friday night dance. Surely, they had no idea that their generation has more at stake than any other in the childhood-obesity epidemic and the outcome of the junk-food war. Certainly, they were unaware that their presence in this particular cafeteria at this particular point in history was, in many ways, an experiment on behalf of the war’s combatants.

Can places like this help teach children choose to eat more healthfully? Schieder shrugged, sure of the answer. “It has to start somewhere,” he said.

But, in Jarman’s fourth-period leadership class, the teenagers had another idea about choice. Of the students present, the vast majority thought that they, especially once they reached high-school age, should be free to decide whether they want to drink soda or eat junk food. “This is not a school issue,” said Kirsten, to the hum of approval from her peers. “It’s a home issue. This is about the habits you develop at home and take into your life.”

Still, two teenagers, both student athletes, spoke up with a dissenting view. “If I were surgeon general, and dealing with [childhood obesity] was my objective, I’d dynamite the Snack Bar and the vending machines,” said Matt, a wrestler. “I’d just get rid of everything.”

The class exploded in unpremeditated laughter.

Devanie Angel contributed to this story.