Yesterday the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity released a report aimed at "Solving the Problem of Childhood Obesity Within a Generation." Many of the recommendations (PDF) are unobjectionable, although the effectiveness of measures such as "a next generation Food Pyramid" and "swapping out deep fryers for salad bars" in school cafeterias is open to question. And there are several coercive elements (not counting the taxes that will be needed to fund anti-obesity boondoggles):
Restaurants and vending machine operators subject to the new requirement in the Affordable Care Act [which mandates conspicuous calorie counts on menu boards] should be encouraged to begin displaying calorie counts as soon as possible….
The food and beverage industry should extend its self-regulatory program to cover all forms of marketing to children, and food retailers should avoid in-store marketing that promotes unhealthy products to children….
All media and entertainment companies should limit the licensing of their popular characters to food and beverage products that are healthy and consistent with science-based nutrition standards….
The food and beverage industry and the media and entertainment industry should jointly adopt meaningful, uniform nutrition standards for marketing food and beverages to children, as well as a uniform standard for what constitutes marketing to children….
Industry should provide technology to help consumers distinguish between advertisements for healthy and unhealthy foods and to limit their children's exposure to unhealthy food advertisements.
Lest you think those last few recommendations are purely voluntary, the report adds that "if voluntary efforts to limit the marketing of less healthy foods and beverages to children do not yield substantial results, the FCC could consider revisiting and modernizing rules on commercial time during children's programming." It also notes that "the prospect of regulation or legislation has often served as a catalyst for driving meaningful reform in other industries" and suggests that such threats "may do so in the context of food marketing as well." Which makes you wonder how the Obama administration will respond if restaurants fail to "consider their portion sizes, improve children's menus, and make healthy options the default choice whenever possible."
What unites both the coercive and the noncoercive elements of this plan is the failure to consider that the values, tastes, and preferences of children and their parents—which are not entirely a product of breakfast cereal commercials—will shape how they respond to the new options and new information that the task force wants to foist upon them. Kids who do not like salad will not suddenly start eating it just because French fries are no longer available in the cafeteria. People who are not inclined to worry much about the nutritional content of their food are not likely to make use of calorie counts on menu boards, new-and-improved labels on packaged food, or radically redesigned (but still pyramidy) dietary charts.
Likewise, the task force's prescription of subsidies as a response to "food deserts" (areas without decent grocery stores) puts the cart before the horse. If supermarket chains stay out of certain neighborhoods because of security concerns or regulatory barriers, local government can do things to make the environment more hospitable for Walmart, Super Target, and Shop Rite. But if they stay out because there is not enough demand for the fresh produce and the other "affordable, healthy foods" that the task force wants everyone to eat, luring them in with subsidies will not do much to change people's diets and will require ongoing corporate welfare.
Not that I want the government to take on the task of changing people's values, tastes, and preferences so that they will make the correct choices in the new food and activity environment it is striving to create. Given what that would entail, we are much better off with lame recommendations about school gardens, farmers' markets, and "the AAP guidelines on screen time."
More on the Obama administration's campaign against fat kids here.