Junk-food wars

As parents and public health advocates prepare to struggle against junk food and the childhood obesity it helps fuel, Washoe County School District takes a look at the food it offers

Photo by Larry Dalton

Chomp down on a Big N’ Tasty with Cheese.

Make that a Double Whopper with a side of Biggie Fries, or, instead, 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—brand-named in the enthusiastic language of fast foods—and consume them happily and 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 pretty much 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 Centers 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.

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 who 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 the California Legislature passed a bill 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 soda—with its 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 recently 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.”

As smokers in Washoe County are starting to realize, Nevadans can often look to California for social trends. Junk-food battles in the schools are no exception.

The Washoe County School District has taken up the struggle against unhealthful eating habits, preparing a study to calculate exactly how much money is generated by vending machines and looking for ways to increase the nutritional values of foods offered to students. In the Las Vegas area, at the behest of parent activists, Clark County has already made changes to school menus. There’s even movement at the state level, with one state senator promising action at the Legislature if sincere steps aren’t taken to improve the food choices offered to children at school.

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 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.

“When you’re running a zoo, you try to feed the animals what they like to eat—to a certain degree,” says Eddie Bonine, director of student services for the Washoe County School District. Bonine is former principle of Fernley High School, and, unfortunate metaphors aside, is co-chairman of a committee formed at the behest of Washoe County School District Superintendent Jim Hagar to study foods. “By the time students get to high school, they’ve already established that if I don’t serve something they want, they’re not going to buy it. If you have an open campus, they’re going to drive like bats out of hell to get to McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Taco Bell, whatever, to get the food they’ve been eating since they were in fifth grade.”

Reno High School students Rosana Jenson, Stefan Michaels and Alba Figueroa take in a fast-food lunch at the McDonald’s on Fifth Street and Keystone Avenue.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Washoe County has only two closed-campus high schools—North Valley High School and Spanish Springs High. All the middle- and grade-school campuses are closed for lunch. The open campuses make it easier for famished students to skip across the street at lunchtime to grab a Double Whopper with cheese and a super-sized Dr. Pepper and decrease the ability of the schools to limit choices to healthful foods.

Rosana Jenson, 17, and Alba Figueroa, 18, are seniors at Reno High School. They say the open campuses are a perk of reaching high school age, and they can’t imagine the high school experience without open campuses.

“Closing campuses is a bad idea,” says Jenson.

The open campuses give students the choice of whether they eat healthy foods or just whatever is served in the cafeteria. Figueroa says she is generally a healthy eater, even when she goes to Jack in the Box, where she’ll order rice. Occasionally, she’ll have a Big Mac, although she prefers places like Pub N Sub or Subway, where she can order healthier foods—not some fat-laden burger. “The school cafeteria doesn’t offer anything that appetizing,” she says.

Bonine, the District administrator, co-chairs the school district’s Food Study Group with Pat Marvel, assistant director of nutritional services. He says the group is just sitting down to the table, looking for samples of facts that will help them to come up with a recipe for dietary improvement. He says that there has been little appetite in Nevada to go to extremes, and vending machines seem at least as safe as a cold Nacho Bel Grande.

“We have some parents who have some concerns that we talk a good game in our schools, and then the kids take a lunch break—what we call a nutrition break—and they eat two breaded pretzels dipped in nacho cheese sauce and drink a Coke with it,” he says. “Not what you’d call a great nutrition break.”

The Food Study Group expects to have a preliminary draft ready for internal review by March with plans to present the results to the school board in April or May.

“When we do the presentation, we’ll have all our ducks in a row,” Bonine says. “We’ll give the board the information to sit back and go, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize how much money was coming in,’ or, ‘Wow, I don’t care how much money it is, it’s dirty money, because it’s non-nutritional.’ We’re going to give them enough information so that whichever way they decide, they’ll have the data to support it.”

Bonine says there is more to studying food in schools than knowing how many calories a slice of pizza has or whether a faggot of French fries will clog the arteries.

Much of most schools’ extracurricular activity is paid for with money generated by vending machines, and some parents are more concerned that Jimmy or Judy not suffer threadworn band uniforms than that the little angels not be tempted toward unhealthful eating habits. That’s the fundamental financial conflict that schools are faced with—either do without the money or don’t strenuously pursue healthful food alternatives.

It’s a complicated formula, and Bonine is the first to admit that he’s more accustomed to dealing with administration than carbohydrates. He says some of the “worker bees” on the Food Study Group have expertise in designing questions for surveys and there are master-degreed nutritionists. Still, there’s a lot that goes into the issue of groceries, and he expects that it’ll all be on the final report to the school board.

“There are this many vending machines that sell Coke, and there are this many vending machines that have Pepsi,” he says. “Kids don’t have access to this machine at this school, and we have Snapple at our schools, and we have juices, and we have water machines. We have different kinds of potato chip machines, candy machines. Student stores don’t just sell pencils books and erasers; they’re also selling this, this, this and this, which all fall into certain food groups.”

In the Clark County School District, parent activists have already fired the first volleys in the junk-food wars. Led by Diane Schramel, president of Summerlin Mortgage, the Las Vegas foot soldiers didn’t attack the problem of junk food at the institutional level; they went after personnel.

Schramel’s belief is that the Clark County School District is simply too monolithic, too bureaucratic, has too much inertia to get much accomplished with any speed. Since school districts are required by federal regulations to serve certain foods, she decided to go after the people who weren’t doing their jobs. She began at the school district level with the person in charge of nutrition. She got a job description and put her sights on a high-level job.

“I started with her, ‘How did you come up with this plan?’ “ Schramel recalls. “I got all of the federal regulations, then I looked at all the school regulations, and then I said to her, ‘None of that fits. I don’t understand how you come up with menus, when they don’t fit FDA guidelines.’ “

Schramel then took official action with the school district against the nutritionist and her supervisor by filing “public-concern” forms. The filing of a public-concern form sets off a formal investigation. That got some action, since, she says, administrators will act in their own self-interest, if not for the children’s best interests. Her concerns finally made it to the desk of Clark County School District Superintendent Carlos Garcia, with whom Schramel met.

But Schramel didn’t stop there. She began going to the individual schools, digging for information that would bring to light the amounts of money the schools were generating through sales from vending machines and snack stores—basically the same information that the Washoe County School District’s Food Study Group has begun to compile.

“In the school district, you are entitled to all kinds of information, but you just have to get it from these people,” she says. “You have to be persistent, you have to be demanding, and you have to be obnoxious to some extent.”

Schramel’s efforts resulted in some small changes during her first year of healthful-food campaigns. The school district added more milk products to the menu, removed some of the less healthful drinks, added some variety to the menu by not having pizza as a daily choice. Those are baby steps, and while she has seen some victories in early skirmishes, she sees her successes as only setting the groundwork for real change in the real war.

“It’s a slow process to get a larger school district moving toward doing the right thing—and that’s all I see it as, doing the right thing,” she says. “Administrators always want to characterize parents, in this particular issue, as, ‘Oh you probably just want healthy foods like tofu.’ I’m like, ‘No, I never said that. I’m not a nut case, I’m just using common sense.’ I saw a couple of the menus: pizza and French fries and breadsticks. I’m like, ‘Do you order that when you go to lunch? Then why are you serving it to kids?’ I don’t get it.”

There are some state officials who don’t get it either. State Senator Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, who switched from the state Assembly to the Senate at the election, says she has supported legislation in the past to improve the quality of the foods in Nevada’s schools. That bill didn’t go anywhere, getting hung up in committee, but she says the threat of new regulations started the ball rolling in some of the schools.

“The schools wanted the opportunity to take care of it themselves. One of the first schools that came forward was [Principal] Susan DeFrancesco of Bonanza High School down south,” she says. “She went in and started making the changes right away. She went with healthier things in the vending machines, and now we have closed campuses, so that makes a difference, too. We’ve been trying to give the schools the opportunity to make the changes themselves.

Cegavske says she is seeing real progress from the school districts. That’s a good thing, she says, because if they don’t, the districts will likely be faced with a battlefront of lawsuits. Still, she says she’ll introduce legislation if she sees the move toward reform begin to retreat.

Photo by Larry Dalton

“If this continues to go the way that it is, and the school district continues to cooperate, I don’t know that we’re going to have to have any legislation,” she says. “But let me tell you, if it doesn’t go the way we think it will, I don’t have any problem putting something in. It’s incredible to me that we teach health, and we teach the food groups, but as a school district we don’t practice what we preach. We don’t eat healthy, and we’re going to make money off of you by selling you unhealthy foods. That’s pretty amazing.”

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 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!” says Gary Ruskin, director of a consumer advocacy group called Commercial Alert. 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.

Meanwhile, kids in 12,000 schools across the country are required, thanks to corporate donations of video equipment in classrooms, to watch a 12-minute Channel One television program every day that contains two minutes of commercials from companies including McDonald’s, Hershey, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, KFC, Frito-Lay, Domino’s and the like.

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 view 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,” says Nestle, who also wrote 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, providing ammunition and a rallying cry for public-health advocates to go to battle. Both authors suggest that the parallels between big tobacco and big food are too obvious to overlook.

“For a long time, it was smoking,” says Melissa Guajardo, a nutrition project coordinator for the Health Education Council in California. “That campaign taught us a lot.”

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 for 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,” she says. “You can’t make the same biological connection. But there are similarities.”

Dan Hackman, a policy analyst, says 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 says. “They’ve created an environment that makes it difficult for kids to make a healthy choice. … How many ads promote cool, hip orange consumption? … Schools are an important first place, an important first step. But this is a multi-year, multi-stage battle.”

Indeed, the fight against fast food already has moved into one court (in a case in which a man is suing McDonald’s because he alleges it caused his obesity), in tax-law proposals (a Yale psychologist made headlines a few years back by calling for a “Twinkie tax") and, of course, in the realm of fast-food marketing aimed at young kids (such ads already have been banned outright in Sweden and Norway).

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 soda 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 lobbies Congress and state houses against legislation that would restrict campus vending machines or schoolchildren’s access to snack foods in any way.

Another development worth noting: Many food-industry giants, ostensibly seeing the writing on the wall, have taken steps to make their foods more nutritious, if not 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.

Schramel, the Las Vegas food activist, says these steps may be too little too late, and she expects that real change will happen only when corporations and schools are forced by lawsuits or activism to put children’s health ahead of profits. Still, some change is better than no change, and a few more salads and fewer cholesterol-laden entrees will help to give children the opportunity to make the right choices in what they eat.

“Why doesn’t the school district take the high road and set standards, instead of always being behind the eight ball?” she asks. “Why does it have to be people like me forcing schools to change? The biggest thing that’s occurred is there is more light being shed on the issue. You shine a spotlight on it. That’s how you affect changes. You shine a light on it, and people say, ‘I need to do something different.’ “

D. Brian Burghart contributed to this article.