The par­ents fight­ing back against the push­ers of junk food to chil­dren

Meet the par­ents fight­ing back against push­ers of junk food to chil­dren – but they still need help

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Front Page - Sheila Way­man

‘Mum, nobody wants to come on a play­date here be­cause you’re too healthy.” Even as a pas­sion­ate be­liever in en­cour­ag­ing chil­dren to love healthy food, Deirdre Doyle found that com­ment from her seven-year-old hard to stom­ach.

“It kind of breaks my heart,” ad­mits the mother-of-three from Grey­stones, Co Wick­low. “Then I am think­ing, should I give in to the seven-year-old or should I stand over my prin­ci­ples?”

It’s a dilemma count­less par­ents will recog­nise when it comes to chil­dren and food pref­er­ences. Fend­ing off their clam­our for sub­stances high in fat, salt and sugar can be a daily – even hourly – bat­tle.

You can ap­pear to be an up­tight kill-joy when stop­ping the con­sump­tion of a choco­late bis­cuit here and a fizzy drink there. But it’s not just an oc­ca­sional item of nu­tri­tion­ally-chal­lenged food that comes your child’s way, junk food is in their face at ev­ery turn – of­fered by well-mean­ing fam­ily and friends; in shops, restau­rants, garages and vend­ing ma­chines; and at its en­tic­ing best in the cre­ations of ad­ver­tis­ing gu­rus.

Doyle, who runs The Cool Food School, is bet­ter equipped than most to with­stand pester power for “treats”. She has stud­ied nu­tri­tion and ear­lier this year started her own busi­ness of­fer­ing work­shops on healthy food as fun for chil­dren in pre-schools and up­wards.

Her ap­proach is “to take food off the din­ing room ta­ble and into a fun en­vi­ron­ment where kids are play­ing with it”. They are en­cour­aged to touch, smell and taste var­i­ous fruit, veg­eta­bles and other healthy food but not pres­surised to eat any­thing.

When her own chil­dren are giv­ing out about not be­ing al­lowed to eat things their peers can have, she tries to ex­plain to them that she has been to “school” to learn about this and prob­a­bly knows a bit more than some other peo­ple.

“It’s a mine­field,” she says, for a par­ent try­ing to take a stand against the junk food that is all around us. “It’s just so all per­va­sive, it’s just ev­ery­where.”

That’s why she was pleased to find sol­i­dar­ity in a par­ents’ cam­paign against junk food ad­ver­tis­ing, which was re­cently launched by the Ir­ish Heart Foun­da­tion (IHF) as part of its “Stop Tar­get­ing our Kids” drive. The obe­sity “epi­demic” has led to chil­dren as young as eight be­ing di­ag­nosed with high blood pres­sure and hav­ing in­creased risk of heart disease, as well as for di­a­betes and at least 13 dif­fer­ent types of can­cer.

As a start­ing point, par­ents are be­ing asked to sign its pe­ti­tion. The cam­paign, bol­stered by a poll show­ing that 71 per cent of Ir­ish adults sup­port a ban on junk food ad­ver­tis­ing to kids, is look­ing for the cur­rent re­stric­tions dur­ing “chil­dren’s TV” to be ex­tended to a 9pm water­shed to in­cor­po­rate “fam­ily view­ing” time.

Codes of prac­tice

They are also urg­ing the Govern­ment to add reg­u­la­tory teeth to the vol­un­tary codes of prac­tice it an­nounced it had agreed with the food in­dus­try last Fe­bru­ary, cov­er­ing non-broad­cast me­dia, spon­sor­ship and re­tail prod­uct place­ment – and of which lit­tle or noth­ing has been heard since.

The statu­tory reg­u­la­tions don’t ap­ply to so­cial me­dia plat­forms and the cam­paign wants to raise aware­ness of on­line tar­get­ing of teenagers, who are used by junk food ad­ver­tis­ers to be­come un­wit­ting mar­keters through tag­ging and shar­ing.

“I am just one per­son on my own,” says Doyle but she hopes the col­lec­tive voice of par­ents can make a big­ger dif­fer­ence.

Pol­icy-mak­ers and the me­dia are al­ways talk­ing about the ques­tion of “parental re­spon­si­bil­ity”, says the IHF’s head of ad­vo­cacy Chris Macey. “They don’t un­der­stand the wider en­vi­ron­men­tal driv­ers. We feel it is bet­ter for par­ents to an­swer that for them­selves rather than for us as a char­ity speak­ing for par­ents. It is all around that pester power gen­er­ated by ad­ver­tis­ing and how you re­sist it.”

It’s so easy for those not in the throes of child-rear­ing to ar­gue that par­ents should just say “no”. But, as Macey points out, since some of the world’s big­gest and most suc­cess­ful com­pa­nies are pro­duc­ing these un­healthy foods, fam­i­lies are up against the “best mar­ket­ing brains in the world”.

Par­ents need help against these for­mi­da­ble forces, says mar­ket­ing poacher-turned-game­keeper Dan Parker, who quit work­ing in ad­ver­tis­ing for multi­na­tion­als af­ter de­vel­op­ing type 2 di­a­betes and formed a UK health pro­mo­tion char­ity, Liv­ing Loud.

“Our first duty as hu­man be­ings is to­wards rais­ing the next gen­er­a­tion, whether it’s yours or so­ci­ety’s,” he tells Health + Fam­ily at the launch of the par­ents’ cam­paign. “I think they have a right to in­no­cence; a right to grow up from un­due in­flu­ence of ad­ver­tis­ing for prod­ucts likely to be detri­men­tal to their health and well-be­ing.”

Marie and To­mas McKeon from Bless­ing­ton, Co Wick­low, do their best to keep their four chil­dren, aged two, four, six and eight, eat­ing healthily. Work­ing part-time in the char­ity sec­tor, Marie has a busi­ness de­gree and mar­ket­ing back­ground and so is more aware than many of junk food ad­ver­tis­ing tac­tics.

As their chil­dren are still very young, they as par­ents don’t have the on­line di­men­sion of mar­ket­ing to con­tend with yet but Marie be­lieves many par­ents don’t re­alise the pre­ci­sion with which on­line ad­ver­tis­ers can tar­get chil­dren, never hav­ing had as much ac­cess to them as they do now.

In the past, she had won­dered why nobody seemed to be ask­ing par­ents for their views on these is­sues and so was very happy to sign up to this cam­paign.

Fizzy drinks and high-sugar break­fast ce­re­als are two prod­uct ranges she finds her­self bat­tling against most with her chil­dren at this stage.

Marie wishes GAA stars would not en­dorse sports drinks, which may have some ben­e­fit for those par­tic­i­pat­ing in pro­longed, high-in­ten­sity ex­er­cise but can con­trib­ute to weight-gain in chil­dren for whom a more spo­radic kickaround once or twice a week is the norm. But it’s very hard, when these guys are he­roes to chil­dren, to try to ex­plain to a child that a drink of wa­ter is bet­ter.

Take an­other sport and an­other hero – rugby and Joe Sch­midt. At those sit-down, tele­vised press con­fer­ences when he’s an­nounc­ing a team or dis­sect­ing a per­for­mance, a few bot­tles of a cer­tain brand of sports drink linger on the ta­ble in front of him, de­spite no re­hy­drat­ing ath­lete in sight. (Although to be fair, we should also note those IRFU stick­ers on packs of veg­eta­bles.)

There’s at least one point in ev­ery day, says Marie, when she is hav­ing to say to her chil­dren that, no, they can’t have some high-sugar item they’re ask­ing for.

Chil­dren’s par­ties have moved from the por­tioned plates of sweet and savoury items in her child­hood to free-for-all goody ta­bles, she points out. “It’s the un­lim­it­ed­ness of it – how are they meant to con­trol them­selves?”

Like most par­ents, Marie strongly ap­proves of the healthy lunch box pol­icy at her chil­dren’s pri­mary school. It is a “re­lief” to be spared that par­tic­u­lar bat­tle as chil­dren ac­cept it un­ques­tion­ingly as the norm.

Par­ents shouldn’t have to be the ones to take on this fight. If the Govern­ment was re­ally se­ri­ous about do­ing some­thing they would take the junk food in­dus­try on

How­ever, she would like to see Fri­day as the sole “treat day” scrapped too, be­cause the chances are the chil­dren are go­ing to be get enough treats over the week­end any­way. Pri­mary school teach­ers are a huge in­flu­ence on chil­dren, she says, and, while we can’t ex­pect them to do ev­ery­thing, they can be a strong force for good in terms of healthy eat­ing and well-be­ing.

The na­tional school in En­niskerry, Co Wick­low, that Siob­hán Dono­hoe’s chil­dren at­tend is, in fact, one that does re­quire healthy lunch boxes all week. “They just ac­cept they’re not al­lowed to bring in a treat or choco­late to school,” she says. It’s “not a bat­tle, it’s nor­mal”.

She joined the par­ents’ cam­paign against junk food mar­ket­ing pri­mar­ily as a mother of three chil­dren aged 11, nine and five. But in her work as a GP, she has seen plenty of fam­i­lies strug­gling with weight is­sues – a dif­fi­culty she is all too fa­mil­iar with her­self.

Dono­hoe spent more than a decade, stretch­ing from her late teens into her 30s, try­ing to get on top of her own weight prob­lem, los­ing three or four stone in the process. Even now, if she doesn’t pay at­ten­tion, “it is so easy for it to slide back”. This is def­i­nitely not some­thing she wishes for her chil­dren.

It is not as if you can avoid food, she points out, so it is try­ing to find a way to be an in­formed eater and give chil­dren good habits – rather than let­ting them fall into bad habits that they will then struggle to break like she did.

But the “obe­so­genic en­vi­ron­ment” – a term coined by New Zealand pub­lic health cam­paigner Boyd Swin­burn – doesn’t make it easy.

Com­plaints from par­ents For in­stance, “it’s hard to eat some­thing healthy in fast-food restau­rants”, says Dono­hoe, who also men­tions com­plaints from par­ents sit­ting in hos­pi­tal wait­ing rooms that the only snacks avail­able are high-sugar ones in a vend­ing ma­chine.

“So, wher­ever you go, you’re backed into a cor­ner where it is next to im­pos­si­ble, un­less you have brought some­thing with you, to have a healthy thing to eat. It’s a con­stant bat­tle.

“Par­ents shouldn’t have to be the ones to take on this fight,” she con­tin­ues. “If the Govern­ment was re­ally se­ri­ous about do­ing some­thing on child­hood obe­sity, they would take the junk food in­dus­try on. It’s a move that would be in their in­ter­est purely from the health bud­get per­spec­tive, as most chil­dren who be­come over­weight or obese carry this into adult­hood, ac­cu­mu­lat­ing health prob­lems and us­ing health ser­vice re­sources as they go.

“We know the ev­i­dence is there that vol­un­tary codes don’t work,” Dono­hoe adds. “We need a strong state­ment from Govern­ment to show their in­tent to be se­ri­ous about this and put some­thing in place that would ac­tu­ally have teeth.”

It’s clear that some politi­cians agree. Five of the 20 rec­om­men­da­tions in the Re­port on Tack­ling Child­hood Obe­sity, pub­lished by the Joint Com­mit­tee on Chil­dren and Youth Af­fairs this month, af­ter the IHF launch of the par­ents’ cam­paign, re­late to tighter con­trols on the ad­ver­tis­ing and mar­ket­ing of un­healthy foods to chil­dren.

The thrust of them is a call for the statu­tory reg­u­la­tions which cur­rently ap­ply to chil­dren’s broad­cast me­dia be ex­tended to “other pro­grammes where there may be a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of chil­dren watch­ing”. It also sug­gests a statu­tory code for the ad­ver­tis­ing and mar­ket­ing of food and non-al­co­holic bev­er­ages in the con­text of non-broad­cast me­dia as well.

The com­mit­tee is “in­clined to agree” that weak def­i­ni­tions of “un­healthy food” and am­bi­gu­ity about “chil­dren’s me­dia” in the code gov­ern­ing non-broad­cast me­dia, not to men­tion its vol­un­tary na­ture, mean “the ef­forts to limit ad­ver­tis­ing in this con­text may be largely mean­ing­less”.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: NICK BRADSHAW

Above: The McKean Fam­ily, par­ents Thomas and Marie with chil­dren (from left) To­mas (6); Feilim (2); Bron­agh (4) and Clodagh (8) who are push­ing back against junk food; Top right: Deirdre Doyle who runs the the Cool Food School; The Ir­ish Heart Foun­da­tion has started its “Stop Tar­get­ing our Kids” drive. ■

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