Parents, not Government, Should Combat Obesity

Rebecca Hagelin

3/22/2012 12:01:00 AM - Rebecca Hagelin

Culture Challenge of the Week: The Food Police

Food is in the news. Specifically, the food that Big Government wants you—or your children--to eat.

It started with Michelle Obama’s headline grab: in 2010, she launched a new initiative to combat childhood obesity. It’s a worthwhile campaign—childhood obesity is something parents ought to be concerned about, for their children’s sakes. According to official reports, one in three children is obese or overweight. And the resulting medical costs of obesity-related medical problems adds up to a nearly $150 billion problem each year.

But as childhood obesity has become the First Lady’s signature issue, it’s assumed the air of “government knows best,” rather than empowering parents to make informed decisions about what’s best for their families. When she launched the effort, Mrs. Obama declared, “We want to eliminate this problem of childhood obesity in a generation. We want to get that done.”

Who, exactly, is “we”?

The government. From its inception, Mrs. Obama’s campaign has left government fingerprints suggesting a pattern of reaching as far into children’s lives as possible, with typical government tools: money, regulations, and bureaucracy. To support his wife’s campaign, President Obama originally promised to reauthorize the school lunch program, and expand its budget by 10 billion over 10 years. (The food wars—fought by potato-lobbyists and frozen-food purveyors—plus budget constraints, produced new school lunch regulations that add an estimated 3.2 billion dollars to the program’s costs.) These regulations control everything from portion size to ingredients to food selection. But, to no one’s surprise, government food regulations don’t solve the problem.

President Obama set up a special task force to bring business, non-profit, and government efforts together to fight childhood obesity. Twelve, count ‘em, twelve federal agencies weighed in. Predictably, the task force developed a long list of 70 recommendations. To put them into practice, Mrs. Obama has leaned on businesses, the military, and schools to provide more nutritious food selections, bring grocery stores and markets to underserved areas, and encourage schools to keep recess in the schedule so that children can exercise.

The results? Well, we’re waiting. Sure, some menus have changed: providing healthier options to military populations and school children is a good thing. But while expanded options for consumers are a good thing, government dictates are not. The hype has generated some over-zealous program administrators, like the ones at a North Carolina elementary school who rejected several children’s mom-packed lunches as nutritionally inadequate and replaced them with cafeteria-supplied chicken nuggets.

And now we have yet another government website (choosemyplate.gov), costing money to build and maintain, offering innovative tips and food-wisdom like this: “Tip of the Day – Depending on their age, children can help shop for, clean, peel, or cut up fruits.” Really? America’s moms surely would never have thought of that on their own. More to the point, food tips like this will have little impact on a child’s weight without the central ingredient: parents.

How to Save Your Family: Parents, take responsibility for healthy habits.

Don’t get me wrong---I strongly support healthy eating and exercise programs. And physicians’ groups have been emphasizing better nutrition and more exercise for years. But as every parent knows, simply putting vegetables on a child’s plate doesn’t ensure they will end up in the right stomach. (Did you know dogs love vegetables?)

The solution to the problem of childhood obesity is the same as the solution to many of the problems ailing our nation: strong families.

The epidemic of childhood obesity has developed alongside the fragmentation and destruction of the nuclear family. According to the Task Force on Childhood Obesity, children’s obesity rates began trending upwards in the late 1970’s. Not so coincidentally, obesity rates rose as more moms entered the workforce, screens (TV, computer, and hand-held) became babysitters, and more children than ever were born into single-parent families. Children can’t raise themselves. Left to their own devices, children will often make poor food choices, eat too much, and watch TV rather than run laps. Common sense tells us that. We don’t need twelve federal agencies opining on the problem.

It’s not the government’s problem that children are overweight or suffering (yes, suffering!) from obesity. And government won’t provide the solution, no matter how many millions of dollars the Obama presidency throws around.

The solution to childhood obesity must come from parents and the other adults in children’s lives (aunts, uncles, grandparents, friends, and teachers.) One study found that parents and caregivers can play a significant role in reducing childhood obesity with a few consistent behaviors: Parents should encourage and model good eating habits and exercise; take the time to plan meals and resist the plea to buy junk food; and reduce the child’s screen time. But perhaps most importantly, parents who want to prevent obesity or help a child lose weight should spend time with their children, strengthening the relationship in a positive, loving way. Be there to guide, encourage—and provide limits as needed.

Children don’t need a government campaign to end childhood obesity. They need parents.