Is it time to reintroduce child labor as a solution to the obesity epidemic afflicting our children? A speech last week by Michelle Obama extolling the virtues of exercise as a key solution to childhood obesity, and Newt Gingrich’s bold proposal to allow children as young as 9 to replace adult janitors at schools with paid jobs, got us thinking that yes, gosh darnit, this might be a pretty good idea. Before dismissing our variation of the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign, please hear us out.
Obesity is a serious and complex issue, and it is a problem that particularly plagues food service workers and their children, a cruel irony of our food system. Our union represents thousands of public school cafeteria workers, and our members see the problem up close every day. While there’s no magic solution to the childhood obesity epidemic, study after study show a strong correlation of childhood obesity to class (or “socioeconomic status” as they like to say in the literature). Income (or lack thereof) affects where you live (and your access to healthy food), how much healthy food you can afford to buy for your family, the time you have to prepare home cooked meals for your children, whether your children participate in federal school breakfast and lunch programs (where pizza is classified as a vegetable), and a host of other food-related decisions.
We’re not saying that income inequality is the only determinant of childhood obesity in America (e.g. insidious marketing of junk food to kids, low nutrition standards for school lunches, and perverse federal subsidies for bad food are also key factors), but it’s pretty darn important. With that said, should we have been surprised that a group called Partnership for a Healthy America — funded by Walmart, Darden (the folks that brought you the Olive Garden and Red Lobster), and other Big Food companies — held a fancy conference last week on childhood obesity and didn’t talk about income inequality in America as a contributing cause of obesity? No, we were not surprised.
What surprised us was the speech by Michelle Obama before the Partnership’ Building a Healthier Future Summit. Rather than address the real structural causes of obesity in America, the First Lady spent most of her speech talking about “the crisis of inactivity that we see among our kids” as a cause of the obesity epidemic. The first lady wistfully recalled a period in America when kids engaged in “heart-pounding, sweat-inducing, active play,” keeping the kids fit and slim. Now we at Real Food Real Jobs enthusiastically endorse exercise for all Americans, but why didn’t Michelle Obama address income inequality or the role of Big Food corporations in the obesity epidemic? We don’t know, but one prominent school food reform advocate accused the First Lady of being “afraid to discuss the real causes of childhood obesity” for fear of angering “powerful corporate interests.”
If Michelle Obama isn’t going to talk about income equality or confront Big Food, at least Newt Gingrich’s bold plan to reintroduce child labor takes a stab at helping the 15 million children in poverty earn a little scratch for food. And it would certainly get kids moving again, exercising their little bodies in America’s farms, factories, and schools. Certainly, we’d no longer have what the the First Lady decried as the crime of children “sitting around watching TV…[and] lounging around the house with friends.” So let’s “redefine” work as play, and lick childhood obesity and poverty! Let’s get kids moving again, and working again to earn money for healthy food!! Will you join our campaign (see below)?