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Fighting junk food in school... with cooties

Karen Humphrey (right) has packed healthy lunches for her son Kevin, now 14, ever since he started school.

laura leyshon The Globe and Mail

At Kevin Humphrey's elementary school, fitting in meant having the "right" juice boxes and packaged snacks. "If I didn't have the right kind of brand ... they'd be like, 'Hey, how come you don't have it?' " says Kevin, now 14 and in Grade 10.

As his mom, Karen Humphrey of Sechelt, B.C., explains: "The kids would [say] 'Oh, I have Quaker granola bars,' and they'd all compare them and stuff. … Kids just thought [Kevin's healthy, homemade food]was outright weird because they wouldn't eat it - and it was things like, you know, salad."

As rising childhood obesity rates suggest, you can lead kids to healthy food, but you can't make them eat.

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If you want to improve teen eating habits, you need to start at the grade-school level- or earlier.But when even youngsters are surrounded by sugary, salty and high-fat food - not to mention peer pressure - how do you get them to want apples and carrot sticks instead of candy bars and potato chips?

Given the billions of dollars that food manufacturers and fast-food chains spend on marketing, it's little wonder that children are lured by toy promotions and vibrant packaging, says Toronto writer Andrea Curtis, author of the upcoming book What's for Lunch? How Schoolchildren Eat Around the World.

"The power of marketing - it's unconscionable really," Ms. Curtis says. "It's not an equal playing field. It's not an equal fight. As parents, as a society … we have a responsibility to our children and the future to our society to combat that."

California's Santa Clara County passed a ban in April to prohibit chains such as McDonald's and Burger King from distributing toys with fast-food meals that don't meet certain nutrition standards.. In a more drastic measure, U.S. food writer and television travel host Anthony Bourdain says he has no hesitation about suggesting to his three-year-old daughter that Ronald McDonald kidnaps children, has cooties, and that the fast-food clown smells "kind of like ... poo!"

"This is not a debate that will be won on facts," he writes in Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook, noting that children his daughter's age aren't interested in calorie counts or factory farming. "But cooties they understand."

Meanwhile, mimicking the tactics of snack-food marketers, a group of U.S. carrot farmers led by California-based Bolthouse Farms launched a creative marketing campaign in September to encourage people to eat baby carrots. The "Eat 'Em Like Junk Food" scheme features packaging that's designed to look like bags of candy, and the website features videos that resemble advertisements for Cheetos.

"In the last 10 years, [snacks have]positioned themselves more as healthy, right? You've got all the low-calorie packs and the 100-calorie packs … and to me that's a bit like the wolf putting on sheep's clothing," says Bolthouse Farms chief executive Jeff Dunn. "In this case, we're just pushing back and … we're the sheep putting on wolf's clothing."

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Adults need to be on board. According to a study in last month's issue of the Canadian Paediatric Society's Paediatrics & Child Health journal, more than 60 per cent of doctors say their biggest obstacle to helping children lose weight is parents, who are either overweight themselves and poor role models, or show little interest in helping their children change their lifestyles.

"Parents are busy," acknowledges B.C. registered dietitian Patricia Chuey, but she says they need to reassess their priorities occasionally and ask themselves, "why does it matter for their child to be as healthy as possible?"

While it can be easy for parents to become discouraged, she says, they can begin by introducing healthier habits over manageable periods of time, such as making breakfasts more nutritious for a few weeks or scaling back on juice and soda consumption at home. "Just pick a place to start," Ms. Chuey says. "They're not going to change the entire situation overnight, but every baby step in the right direction is going to add up over time."

The battle is most likely to be won if families get involved in actually preparing the food they eat. An entire cultural shift is needed to tear families away from the fast-food and takeaway habits they've developed over the past 50 years.

Andrea Maldonado, who co-ordinates an after-school program for students aged 8 to 12 at The Stop Community Food Centre in Toronto, says children are more inclined to eat healthfully when they're involved in growing and preparing their own food.

"When they make it with their own hands … and they put all the labour into it, then they're more keen to try it," she says. "Kids are, I would say, 20 times more likely to eat some kind of vegetable dish if they prepare it themselves than if it was served to them."

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Farm to School programs inspired by the locavore movement are taking root across Canada and in the United States, thanks to slow-food crusaders like California chef Alice Waters, who promotes growing and cooking in school curricula. Her efforts were backed last month by a study from the University of California at Berkeley, commissioned by Ms. Waters's Chez Panisse Foundation, that found elementary and middle-school students who learn to garden and cook through the foundation's School Lunch Initiative had a greater preference for healthy food and greater knowledge of nutrition.

The trick may ultimately be to get them while they are really young. In Cambridge, Ont., Christine Kennedy has found it much easier to get her 18-month-old daughter to eat nutritious foods than it is for her two older children, because she began feeding her youngest child a wider variety of healthy foods at an earlier age.

It can still be "a battle of the wills" trying to convince her eight-year-old son of the benefits. "He often says to me, 'When I move out of here, I'll buy this and this and this and I'm going to eat this and this and this,' " she says.

"Whether he does or whether he doesn't, I'm not sure. But I think it is our job as parents, when they are young, to teach them what is right. … And hopefully, what you've taught them sticks."

Parents should rethink what they consider as treats, says Ancaster, Ont.-based registered dietitian Shannon Crocker, who notes that adults tend to underestimate children's appetite for fresh fruit and vegetables. "If you treat them as one of the other treats, it becomes part of the norm."

That type of attitude adjustment doesn't mean forbidding junk food outright. Rather, children will look forward to eating healthier foods if they're also presented as special and delicious. "Watermelon is one of the fun foods," she says.

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More

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