Advertisements for unhealthy food are commonplace in the United States today, often targeting children who are too young to comprehend what they are viewing. Most at risk to such advertisements are children of low socio-economic status, who on average spend more time in front of the television and often have greater exposure to unhealthy foods in their neighborhoods and at school. The increased consumption of low-nutrition and high calorie foods compromises the mental and physical well-being of these children, presenting barriers to their academic and economic success. The marketing and distribution of food thus serves to perpetuate the social status of these children, maintaining the expanding class divide in the United States.
As William Dietz, director of the Division of Physical Nutrition, Activity and Obesity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, confirms in the HBO documentary The Weight of the Nation, “The more television a child watches, the more likely they are to consume foods while watching television, and those foods are more likely to be those that are advertised on television.”
An increase in television watching therefore translates to greater food consumption, specifically consumption of unhealthy foods. According to TV-Free America, the average American child views 20,000 thirty-second ads each year, and the number one ad group targeted at children is advertisement for food products and fast-food restaurants. Unfortunately, these food ads mainly display high-calorie, low-nutrition snacks and cereals, with no emphasis on fruits or vegetables. Thus, children watching television ads are encouraged to consume foods detrimental to their health. This viscous cycle perpetuates the intake of unhealthy foods as the child becomes surrounded—both on and off-screen—by foods laden with fat and sugar.
Food companies and advertisers are resistant to government and public pressure to change the status quo because of the huge revenues they receive from youth food consumption. Ironically, however, these food companies support the federal government’s role in school lunch programs. While schools receive a limited budget to both educate and feed their students, government emphasis on reading and writing skills has encouraged the channeling of these funds into academics, leaving school meal programs underfunded. In the documentary, Marlene Schwartz, the Deputy Director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, explained the drawback of this system:
“Because there is a commercial interest, meaning that the cafeteria needs to be self-supporting, they have really been … put in a corner where they need to figure out a way to sell the most product to the students.”
Schools with tight budgets are thus pressured to supply foods that are easy to sell. Since television advertisements have primed children’s palates for high-sugar and fatty foods, students gravitate towards these options in the lunchroom. Thus, according to Weight of the Nation, while 99 percent of all public schools participate in the National School Lunch Program, 94 percent of these schools serve a lunch that does not meet the USDA recommendations for a healthy school meal. These statistics reflect the power that food industries hold over the distribution of food to young Americans. This power constitutes a major barrier to the provision of healthy food for kids in schools.
Children from lower classes are more likely to partake in the National School Lunch Program and thus more likely to consume the low quality foods the program provides. Studies show that public school attendance is correlated with a higher body mass index and that public school students are more likely to be overweight. More specifically, according to a study published in the Journal of School Health, a strong correlation exists between higher body mass index and children from low-income families who attend public schools. In fact, children partaking in the National School Lunch or School Breakfast Program are 4.5 percent more likely to be overweight than the average American child.
According to Annals of Epidemiology, children from lower socio-economic groups who have a higher risk of obesity are also more likely to grow up obese. A lifetime of compromised health has dire implications. The American capitalist system already presents barriers for members of the lower classes to succeed economically. The growing obesity epidemic now places another obstacle in their path.
In Weight of the Nation, Margo Wootan asserts that as children are exposed to toxic food advertising, “…it shapes what they want to eat into foods that will kill them.”
All children are drawn to these foods—at supermarkets, at home and at school. However, children of lower socio-economic status are particularly targeted by this trend due to greater television watching, limited access to healthy foods and greater participation in unhealthy public school meal programs, compromising both their mental and physical health. If access to medical care for overweight and obese youth is not sought or is unavailable, these children are at risk for heart disease and chronic disorders.
Accustomed to the unhealthy foods they have been eating since childhood, overweight children will likely continue to suffer from obesity and its associated illnesses as adults. Self-esteem issues which often accompany excess bodily fat could also inhibit these individuals throughout their lives. Furthermore, without proper nutrition, many children receiving subsidized meals will have a harder time focusing in class, resulting in a greater struggle for good grades and success in the academic realm. With these added obstacles to their educational achievement, their academic journeys may be cut short, restricting their job opportunities. Overweight and obese children of lower socio-economic status may thus literally be “weighed down” with every step they take into adulthood.
The consequences of this trend could shape the future of America. Although a significant divide already exists in the United States between rich and poor, the country’s food system will serve to maintain and even widen this divide. While wealthy children have increased access to healthy food, outdoor play areas (meaning less time in front of the television) and private school educations, their impoverished counterparts meet barriers to good health and professional success at every school meal and during each afternoon spent internalizing toxic food ads.
The unhealthy food epidemic in the United States targets poor children and serves to perpetuate their poverty. With shorter lifespans and an inhibited road to economic prosperity, their ability to break out of the lower socio-economic class is hampered. Their children then grow up facing similar risks, forming a viscous cycle which begins and ends at the plate.
If Americans want a different future, drastic societal changes must be made. The government must implement regulations to protect the malleable minds of children from food advertisements that threaten their health. It must also regulate production and establish health standards for foods targeted at youth. School breakfast and lunch programs should receive the minimum funding necessary for them to adequately nourish young minds and bodies. Finally, we must educate parents about the health risks of childhood obesity and provide them access to health initiatives for their children. With these changes, a serious barrier to success for children from low-income families may be lifted. Given the necessary instruments for growth, these youth can escape the vicious cycle of poverty and close the class gap, creating a healthier and more prosperous country.