dreaming of a different kid’s menu, sans fries.
Over Halloween weekend my friend and I decided to take our kids to the Children’s Museum of Manhattan. We had them wear their costumes, and they had a blast exploring the different floors. (If you are in NYC or come to visit with young kids, I highly recommend it!) My son went ballistic at the Dora The Explorer exhibit, and all of them enjoyed the different slides and games.
After the museum we headed to a nearby diner. I ordered soup, and my friend ordered her children grilled cheese sandwiches. (the waitress asked “from the kid’s menu?” – “Yes please”) My friend opted for an omelette. The waitress asked her if she wanted fries or potato pancakes. She said fries. When the waitress stepped away, my friend thought about it and decided she wanted to change the order to potato pancakes, “that way the kids won’t ask me for fries.” Smart move, I replied.
When our food came, her omelette had a side of potato pancakes and applesauce and a slice of cantaloupe. The kids’ grilled cheese sandwiches came… with …. A SIDE OF FRIES! So much for her smart move! Now, there wasn’t only one order of fries to be shared by both, they each had their own portion! (I need to add, the waitress didn’t say that the grilled cheese came with fries, didn’t give an option for a side dish… nothing).
This incident highlights one of the many problems with our food culture. Why is the default on a a kid’s menu a side of fries? Why didn’t she get a choice? What shocks me the most, why is it that her dish was healthier and included fruit, but the kid’s menu did not?
I am taking a class called “Food Policy and Politics” at NYU. A couple of weeks ago we had a guest speaker, Dr. Kelly Brownell of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Dr. Brownell is a leading authority on obesity. Dr. Brownell gave a fascinating presentation on topics such as the soda tax, child obesity and food marketing. There was one particular point that he made during this presentation that came back to my mind when the episode at the diner happened. He talked about how changing the default choice could drastically change an outcome. The example he gave was organ donation. When people were automatically opted into an organ donation program, having an option to opt out if they wanted to, organ donation rates were over 90% (many countries in Europe have this system). In contrast, countries where you have to actively seek to enroll in an organ donation program have a low participation rate (I believe it was around 13 percent). The same way, in companies where employees have to actively enroll in a retirement savings plan the rates of enrollment are not as high as when the default is to enroll employees and they have the option to opt out if they choose to. Changing the default drastically changes the outcome. With regards to food it is the same principle, if the default is French fries, then everyone will eat French fries, that is the norm, what the grilled cheese comes with. But, why can’t the default choice be apple slices or a side of carrots? Shouldn’t we want the default to be something healthier for our kids?
Recently, the Administration updated school lunch menus. It tried (and was unsuccessful) to remove potatoes from menus and replace with healthier vegetables. Potato growers lobbied heavily to stop changes to school menus that would have reduced potato consumption. Recently, the Institute of Medicine recommended limiting consumption of potatoes and replacing these with other vegetables in school lunches. One analysis conducted by Harvard showed that people who consumed more potatoes gained more weight. Before I get hate comments, i just want to be clear, I like French fries. I don’t think there is anything wrong with having them from time to time. I think what I have a problem with is with the prevalence of french fries in school lunches. If having fast food were a once-in-a-while special treat, then it would be OK, but imagine kids who can potentially have fries every day at school, or 2 or 3 times a week, and then also have it on the weekends. It is no longer a treat, it is the default.
Now, potato growers and lobbyists, don’t get all upset … I’m not calling for a ban on potatoes, what i am saying is that there are different ways to eat potatoes that don’t include deep frying and salt, such as mashed garlic potatoes, a potato omelette, a cold potato salad with vinaigrette, all delicious simple recipes!
The American Heart Association’s latest figures on child obesity tell us that over 30% of children are overweight or obese. We have to change this trend. We have to fight for quality food in restaurants and schools and access to affordable, good quality food at home. Things cannot remain as they are… we must do something to stop the epidemic of childhood obesity. Our children, the future of our country, cannot afford this. As a nation, we cannot afford this. We must work together—parents, schools, government— to reverse it. We need to make the default apples and carrots, not fries.