Kids can’t do it alone: Cabin parties, marketing campaigns and the continuing childhood obesity threat

A classroom pizza party, Go-Gurt after a soccer game or a handful of Skittles as a reward for a four-year-old who puts his head under water in swim class. Where’s the harm?  It boils down to this: In spite of recent gains, childhood obesity remains a major health threat to the health of kids nationwide.

Why? Because kids live in a world that’s awash with confusing messages about health.

Childhood obesity message #1: Junk food means fun

Yoni Freedhoff’s recent piece “It’s Up to Us, Not Our Kids, to Change the Food Environment” hits this nail on the head. In it, he shares an example of how he and his wife were asked to send their daughter to summer camp with a “snack for her first night’s ‘cabin party.’” No big deal, right?


Freedhoff makes two critical points:

    • I get it, the kids will be scared, homesick and strangers to one another, and the junk food’s there to serve as their sugary icebreaker. Sure, it may unconsciously teach children that uncomfortable emotions like fear and loneliness can or should be treated with candy… but one thing’s for certain: Kids do love candy and so, no doubt, the night was a success.
    • Maybe instead of teaching preschoolers about self-regulation, or encouraging 9-year-olds to take a stand and fight back against cabin parties …, we should instead get to work on changing the world we’ve built our children – the world where treats are the answer to anything and everything child-related.

(Read the full post.)

These messages are a big deal. Our kids deserve more than easy rewards.

Childhood obesity message #2: Unhealthy eating is cool

Why is it so important that we remain vigilant even in seemingly harmless situation when a kid really deserves a reward or some comfort? Primarily, because there are so many unhealthy messages in so many places.

Sure we can and should teach kids healthy habits, but how can we expect them to protect themselves against the onslaught? Author Karen Le Billon makes this point in a recent post on the Fooducate blog:

American kids are exposed to over 40,000 food ads per year–most of which are for fast food, cereal, and candy… What do these ads tell our kids? That unhealthy eating (e.g., frequent snacking on calorie-dense and nutrient-poor food) is normal, fun, positive, and socially rewarding… Marketing strategies have proliferated, and gotten subtler, targeting ‘cool’ messages at some age groups and ‘cute’ messages at others, until heavily marketed brands become central to children’s sense of identity and self. Scary.

(Read the full post.)

Childhood obesity message #3: Doctors say it’s okay, right?

What’s even scarier than the sophistication and proliferation of straightforward marketing is this: The tacit approval of respected public health organizations who partner with food and beverage companies on image-burnishing campaigns disguised as anti-obesity efforts.

Sure, dollars are scarce and the need to raise awareness about childhood obesity  is huge. It can still send a dangerous public health message when respected entities align themselves with companies primarily known for the unhealthy food and drink they sell. Whether it’s the American Academy of Pediatrics accepting Nestle’s backing for its Institute for Childhood Weight, the American College of Cardiology’s alliance with Coca-Cola (also highlighted by Freedhoff), or the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ acceptance of funding from major food corporations… Houston, we should at least consider the possibility that we have a problem.

The takeaway

Kids get confusing health messages from every direction, even from the public health community. Freedhoff and LeBillion are right: These messages are a big deal. Our kids deserve more than easy rewards. They deserve our best efforts to engage in the full range of activities — from community activism, to active parenting, to advocating for better food policies — that will make the world they live in a safer, healthier place.

Read Yoni Freedhoff’s post, “It’s Up to Us, Not Our Kids, to Change the Food Environment.” 

Read Karen LeBillion’s post, “Food Marketing to Kids: What Every Parent Should Know.”