A perfect example of why weight should not be used as a proxy for health

I was reading this article the other day about how many states are changing the rules about snacks, junk food, candy for fundraisers, and school lunch programs to address the “obesity crisis.” And it hit me: why did it take anxiety about fat kids for the schools to address the way that they’re feeding kids while they’re in school?

School districts across the country have been taking steps to make food in schools healthier because of new federal guidelines and awareness that a growing number of children are overweight.

In California, deep fryers have been banned, so chicken nuggets and fries are now baked. Sweet tea is off the menu in one Alabama school. In New Jersey, 20-ounce sports drinks have been cut back to 12 ounces.

Food and beverage companies have scrambled to offer healthier alternatives in school cafeterias and vending machines, and some of the changes have been met with a shrug by students. The whole-wheat chocolate-chip cookies? “Surprisingly, the kids have kind of embraced them,” said Laura Jacobo, director of food services at Woodlake Union schools in California.

You know, it’s not just fat kids who benefit from better nutrition. ALL kids benefit from fewer fried foods, fewer sugary drinks, more fruits and vegetables, and candy as a treat rather than an everyday occurrence. What does it say about the way that this country views fat and health being linked that nobody really made a concerted effort to feed kids better as long as they stayed thin?

The federal guidelines, by all accounts, are not only antiquated but based more on what’s beneficial for farmers who benefit from agricultural subsidies than what’s beneficial for children. Which is the way a number of food assistance programs work (they don’t call it “government cheese” for nothing). In addition, according to Fast Food Nation, school lunch programs often get substandard food through federal programs designed for farmers.

Add to that the vending machines and candy sales that have proliferated in the past 20 years or so as school funding gets cut (not to mention the ads that kids are barraged with) and school districts have to make up the money somewhere.

And look! Who’s been holding back changes to the federal school nutrition guidelines that would allow the federal government to issue guidelines for food sold outside the cafeteria, which is currently left to the states?

A bill sponsored by Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, that is pending in Congress would authorize the Department of Agriculture to update its rules for what could be sold at schools throughout the day. Several previous attempts by Senator Harkin have failed because of opposition from the food and beverage industry.

This time around, however, the American Beverage Association, which represents the soda industry, does not oppose the bill but is trying to iron out differences with Senator Harkin’s staff about rules on beverages. The Snack Food Association favors guidelines rather than a mandate.

Fancy that.

The real kick in the pants of it is, it took the moral panic about kids getting fat for the government to even think about doing anything — and that moral panic is probably the only reason Harkin’s bill will have even a prayer of passing. Who cares that we’re giving kids substandard nutrition, as long as they all look thin?

Oh, wait! I sense a chill. Who could it be?

And while some parents bristle at cupcake crackdowns, others argue that such guidelines are reasonable because children can be inundated with junk food at school.

MeMe Roth said she tried in 2005 to persuade other parents to ban Twinkies, doughnuts and other treats from celebrations at her children’s school in Millburn, N.J. While some parents supported her, Ms. Roth, who is president of an nonprofit organization called National Action Against Obesity, said that some were openly hostile. Her effort ultimately failed.

“Until healthful food stops competing against junk food, it doesn’t stand a chance,” Ms. Roth said.

Ah, it’s the joyless MeMe Roth. Note that the snacks and baked goods she is objecting to are meant for special occasions, like birthdays. Not for every day. And even if you get 30 kids in a class, that’s at most 30 cupcakes over the course of a school year, less if you lump all the vacation birthdays together. Hardly something that’s going to harden the little dears’ arteries right then and there.

More importantly, though, taking away cupcakes on birthdays seems unnecessarily punitive, especially if it’s linked to the fat kids in class. Could you imagine being the fat kid in a class where everyone’s upset that they can’t have cupcakes anymore, and everyone knows it’s because of your fat ass? Moreover, Me!Me!’s approach makes eating healthy seem like punishment or duty, something you do not because, hey, this tastes pretty good, but because you’ve been bad and you need to atone for your sins.

In any event, what’s wrong with a birthday cupcake now and again? Special occasions are supposed to be special, which is why you get cupcakes.

40 comments for “A perfect example of why weight should not be used as a proxy for health

  1. Nenena
    September 7, 2007 at 2:17 am

    Thank you so much for this post. My experience working in a Minneapolis public school taught me that most of our fears about the poor nutrition that our kids are suffering from – at least in terms of what they’re being fed (and hawked) in school – are justified. I haven’t noticed any sort of rise in obesity, but I have noticed an epidemic of poorly nourished students who are too easily tired, too sugar-drenched to concentrate in class, or who show all of the other signs of being undernourished, particularly right after lunch period. Right after eating lunch, they look – and act – worse than they do any other time of the day!

    I can get on board with the pro-nutrition crowd, but the fact that it so often – and so easily – aligns with the anti-fat crowd makes me squeamish. I want the government to stop feeding our kids crap, and I want our government to start giving schools sufficient funds so that they don’t have to sell out to soda, candy, and sports drinks in order to raise money for basic necessities. Why is it so hard to address these issues without someone inevitably standing up and screeching about the horrors of fat people?

  2. September 7, 2007 at 10:10 am

    Why does anybody take Meme Roth seriously? She’s obviously unhinged. (cf attacks on Girl Scouts, physical violence directed at a YMCA sundae stand)

  3. rachel
    September 7, 2007 at 10:59 am

    damn it! i knew meme roth’s name sounded familiar! she of the “i’m the same size as my wedding dress” nonsense.

    ah well, i agree with her. i hate that. not because i’m a joyless person who hates celebration, but because i don’t particularly understand the correlation between “i have a birthday” and “bringing cupcakes to school”. this is coming from a still-bitter summer birthday-ed former schoolkid, but i guess i don’t see why a birthday is a decent reason to toss out nutritional guidelines in school. i guess you’re right, zuzu, it’s 30-ish times a school year, it’s a snacky treat, yadda yadda yadda. but eh, it’s hardly necessary to bring in treats for the whole class just because it’s your birthday*. this movement to make schools healthier also strikes me as something that can’t be done piecemeal. if you give an inch on a cupcake for a birthday, then you’ll be nagged for cake for sports celebrations, etc.

    *i’d make a crappy teacher, no? “you were born, big deal. so was everyone else in this room. what makes you so special? here, eat a carrot”.

  4. September 7, 2007 at 11:12 am

    Who’s making these cupcakes anyway? Is this yet another mommy-chore I will soon be expected to do?

  5. Marle
    September 7, 2007 at 11:18 am

    Haha, Rachel I totally agree. If you want to do something special for a birthday, there’s plenty of things healthier than giving everyone a cupcake. Of course, ideally you’d only have 10 or 15 kids in a classroom, and then the special treats would be even more rare. But they still shouldn’t be cupcakes. If parents want their kids to have cake they can have it at their birthday parties, but the schools shouldn’t be encouraging kids to eat excessive amounts of sugar.

  6. zuzu
    September 7, 2007 at 11:19 am

    Rachel, the idea is balance. Cupcakes are not something that needs to be served every day, but something that is associated with a special occasion. And, like I said, if all the joy gets sucked out of a classroom and they have to give up all their fun little rituals because of the “obesity crisis,” who’s going to get blamed for that?

    And god knows, fat kids are stigmatized enough already.

  7. rachel
    September 7, 2007 at 11:23 am

    good point, other rachel…let birthday kid have a cupcake when they get home. grownups waste time in school. at my school we had this thing where, when a kid had a birthday, their parents were *invited* to kindly buy a book and donate it to the school library on behalf of the kid’s birthday. ????? what does that have to do with kids being born?

    i doubt honestly these new “guidelines” for healthy food have anything to do with health. it’s not the health of the kids we are worried about…it’s their weight. cause everyone knows, fat people are ugly as hell! moral panic…yeah. i was a fat kid…still am…ironically did not eat school lunch, brought my own from home, so it was a little better quality…

    i’m surprised they don’t come up with a rule that says you have to weigh under a certain number…THEN you will be allowed to buy a soda or candy bar at the vending machine…skinny people don’t “need” to eat healthy…what’s the point? they’re already skinny…(not my personally opinion, just what i perceive that of most others to truly be when it comes down to it.)

  8. FashionablyEvil
    September 7, 2007 at 11:26 am

    Who’s making these cupcakes anyway?

    Not my mother. I will be eternally grateful to Rich, who had the same birthday as me. It meant I got a cupcake on my birthday at school because my mom didn’t have the time to bake cupcakes for me and my siblings (I don’t suppose it helped that all 4 of us have October birthdays, although it kind of made October sweets heaven with 4 birthday cakes/pies and Halloween.)

  9. Marle
    September 7, 2007 at 11:37 am

    Oh my goddess. I went to MeMe Roth’s blog, and it’s horrible. This comment from one of her articles:

    I wish more women would listen to your refreshing message. Unfortunately those who need it most are the ones who seem to be angered by your “challenge”.

    When I married my wife she was a beautiful 125 lbs. Ten years and 3 kids later, she is a disgusting 350 lbs and blames her gargantuan size on the 3 pregnancies.

    Husbands like me should be able to sue for “false advertising”!

    makes me feel like throwing up. And it’s not just that comment, Roth herself says that starving yourself before the wedding with no intention of keeping that weight is a kind of fraud. I can’t believe people can be that hateful.

  10. Bitter Scribe
    September 7, 2007 at 11:56 am

    The federal guidelines, by all accounts, are not only antiquated but based more on what’s beneficial for farmers who benefit from agricultural subsidies than what’s beneficial for children.

    THANK YOU! Not enough people know that. The U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, which is responsible for helping farmers move their commodity products like cheese and corn, should NOT be setting nutritional guidelines, in or out of school. You can’t serve two masters.

  11. September 7, 2007 at 12:05 pm

    Who’s making these cupcakes anyway? Is this yet another mommy-chore I will soon be expected to do?

    Just for knowledge sake, it’s a rare school these days that allows homebaked treats of any kind to be brought in for other kids. Anything that is brought in to be shared with the class has to be in a sealed package when it gets to the school, at least that’s how it is here in Minnesota. Not sure why, I suppose because it’s easier to monitor what’s in the food in case of allergies.

  12. Karna
    September 7, 2007 at 12:08 pm

    I wish there was a good way to separate people who want to push health from the “nobody can be fat”. I mean, I can’t really say that I don’t want to see more fruits and vegetables and less potato chips offered as school lunch. or more physical activity. Because I do believe that both of those things will make most kids healthier. unfortunately I agree with Naena when she says that the linkage between the nutrition crowd and skinny crowd makes here squeamish. Me too.
    as for the “Roth herself says that starving yourself before the wedding with no intention of keeping that weight is a kind of fraud” I kind of agree, in the sense that I see all the “bridal boot camps” and get squeamish again. perhaps the solution to this is stop plastering the idea that thin at wedding=happy life? or even that thin=happy life. rather than what I know she was going for that you should keep starving yourself, lets resolve this fraud by. . . gasp. . . not starving yourself before a wedding.

  13. Ledasmom
    September 7, 2007 at 12:23 pm

    It’s a damn cupcake. Let ’em have the cupcakes in school; if a cupcake is the worst thing they eat all day, they’re doing well. I had two cupcakes for breakfast this morning, dammit.
    Mini-cupcakes. But still.

  14. September 7, 2007 at 12:39 pm

    I’m really craving cupcakes now. With frosted icing. I might go and make some. Because that way I get to eat raw cake mix too. Yum yum.

  15. zuzu
    September 7, 2007 at 12:44 pm

    Make some Mr. T cupcakes!

  16. September 7, 2007 at 1:30 pm

    When I was in school, I think it worked out to be two cupcakes a month and it wasn’t really done after about 4th grade. Beyond that, you were considered too old.

    On caveat on the fruits and vegetables: when I was in school, the fruits and veggie options were not somehow healthier: the cooked veggies (always from canned) were full of fat and salt and the fruit (also canned) was usually packed in heavy syrup. If there were options for fresh fruits and veggies, that would be stellar.

  17. September 7, 2007 at 1:35 pm

    Cupcakes for birthday parties are great! But when those cupcakes are on top of greasy pizza slices, deep fat fried french fries, cans of soda, and candy bars that are offered every day…well it gets a bit much. I guess I’d be a party pooper. LOL

  18. September 7, 2007 at 2:08 pm


    Concerning this Zuzu post. Election Canada has now made it legal for women to vote with their face covered. Québec feminists oppose the decision.

  19. September 7, 2007 at 2:32 pm

    Birthday parties are one thing, loading up vending machines available on school grounds with soda and chocolate is another. When I was in high school, I bused between two schools because I had a special art program in the morning and regular school in the afternoon. Busing took place during lunch period, so I ate lunch out of the vending machine, which was full of chocolate cakes.

    Okay, it’s almost 30 years later, and vending machines are much more ubiquitous. My son is skinny; over 5’9″ and 120 pounds. But I am concerned about his health. Not because of his weight, but because I’m his MOTHER. I’m supposed to be concerned about his health. And health food? Healthier.

    So why marginalize fat kids? Because we ALWAYS marginalize fat kids. No other reason.

  20. Entomologista
    September 7, 2007 at 2:44 pm

    Farmers have bills to pay, but may or may not have a crop. For example, I was just out in western NE where they have drought conditions. Spider mites take advantage of drought – I was in some corn so full of mites that when I came out it looked like my shirt was crawling. I don’t have a problem with government programs that help farmers.

  21. FashionablyEvil
    September 7, 2007 at 2:55 pm

    I don’t have a problem with government programs that help farmers.

    Right. But that doesn’t mean those programs should dictate what kids are fed in school.

  22. Marle
    September 7, 2007 at 3:26 pm

    Farmers have bills to pay, but may or may not have a crop.

    Everyone has bills to pay but may or may not have the money. My husband has his own business, but if people don’t buy his stuff the government doesn’t send him a check. Besides, it’s not like most of the money to farmers is sent because they tried to grow crops and it didn’t happen – a lot are paid not to grow anything (so that food prices don’t get too low), and they will pay farmers to grow specific crops (corn being a biggie) instead of rotating them and having diversity, which is how we get high fructose corn syrup in everything. I don’t want farmers to starve either but we’ve got to manage the subsidies in a way that doesn’t hurt everyone else.

  23. DiscGrace
    September 7, 2007 at 3:31 pm

    N1Nj4G1RL is right – the main reason the schools I work/observe in give for not allowing students (or teachers) to bring in food or treats is allergies. Peanut allergies especially are increasing in frequency and severity, enough so that if something contains peanuts, peanut butter, peanut oil, or peanut whatever, the bits of it that aerosolize are enough to set off some poor kid’s allergic reaction. And even if it’s an allegedly peanut-free product, it just might have been baked or processed in the same facility where peanuts were handled, and sometimes even that can be enough. =( Which is sad, because I

  24. Kat
    September 7, 2007 at 7:11 pm

    That has been my experience too. We usually are told we can’t bring in home-baked treats. I, for one, do not protest this at all. Cupcakes for birthdays/holiday parties are allowed but they have to be “store bought”. My son’s kindergarten teacher told us at open house that we could bake but she would need a list of ingredients so she could manage the allergy issues. Items with peanuts or chocolate are not allowed. We just got a letter home from the school nurse telling us that a classmate is highly allergic to mint, so to be careful–the kids can’t bring in mints, gum, etc. His daycare was completely peanut-free.

    At our school, they do what is called a “stress-free” fundraiser. AT the beginning of the year, we are all asked to write one check for $20 in lieu of any major fundraising efforts. The parents had all been complaining that the crap they had to sell was horrible (cookie dough, overpriced wrapping paper) and then the school only got 1/2 the proceeds anyhow.

    I think kids deserve the treat of a cupcake. Having a party with their peers is a social experience and can be a time to learn good manners, etc.

    Besides, they work hard in school trying to pass their federally mandated SOL tests with substandard funding and a teacher shortage and crumbling facilities, they should get a treat now and again….

  25. Mnemosyne
    September 7, 2007 at 7:58 pm

    Geez, now people want to take cupcakes out of the hands of little kids? It’s a treat, people. The problem is when they get to have cupcakes every day at lunch, not that a classmate brings them in once a month. Telling kids that they can’t have treats even on special occasions is just plain mean.

  26. car
    September 7, 2007 at 10:12 pm

    My fourth-grader’s teacher deals with the birthdays by having one a month, max. Everyone in that month with a birthday celebrates it on the same day. I’m not sure if that means the kids get 5 cupcakes at once, but I think she coordinates it with the parents so that if there are several, one brings cupcakes, one brings drinks, etc.
    They’re kids. They can have a 15 minute party at school once a month.
    The ones I worry about are all the teachers – they have a tradition at school where if a birthday kid brings a treat to the special teachers (librarian, gym teacher, etc.) they get stuff like a sticker or pencil or something. Take 300 kids in a school, and the teachers are probably getting at least 3 cupcakes a week. Take that, health crisis!

  27. gaia
    September 8, 2007 at 12:16 am

    We send muffins to school. A chocolate muffin is no healthier than a chocolate cupcake (except no icing) but they’re considered “healthy” for the school rules.

    If schools are really serious about the health crisis they’ll add recess back into the day. Our school DOES do PE 4 times/week, but they only get one 10-20 minute recess a day (depends upon how quickly they finish lunch) – even in 1st grade. And then they wonder why the kids are antsy and restless by the end of the day.

  28. Morgan
    September 8, 2007 at 6:29 pm

    oy—if a child has healthy balanced meals at school and healthy balanced meals at home, and then has cupcakes on birthdays and holidays, s/he learns moderation.

    if s/he is not allowed junk food by parents, for fears about health, or, say, FAT, s/he will find outside sources to get those treats. and s/he will binge on the forbidden booty. and will only get less healthy/SLIM.

    kids do not care about health. they are not sensible adults. they will find a way. trust me. better to let them have a b-day cupcakes so sugar can be a happy treat instead of a secret shame.

  29. September 8, 2007 at 8:43 pm

    Growing up, we had two 15-minute recess periods, twice a day. I was pretty shocked when I learned how different it is now. That explains a lot.

  30. Entomologista
    September 8, 2007 at 10:57 pm

    Everyone has bills to pay but may or may not have the money. My husband has his own business,

    Yeah, but if your husband’s business fails it’s doubtful that anybody else besides you two (no offense) will care. Farmers make the food that you eat, which is why they get support and your husband doesn’t. 5% of the population is feeding the other 95% at the moment. It may not seem like a big deal to you if some farmer from flyover country is run out of business, but it is. I just don’t see why it has to be an either kids get healthy food or farmers get support type of situation. That’s all.

    a lot are paid not to grow anything (so that food prices don’t get too low), and they will pay farmers to grow specific crops (corn being a biggie) instead of rotating them and having diversity

    Um, what? Farmers rotate crops to mitigate insect problems, among other reasons. A lot of farmers rotate corn and soybeans. Maybe you’re talking about the Conservation Reserve Program, where farmers are paid to leave land fallow. There are actual scientific reasons why this is done – there might be financial reasons as well – but I’m more familiar with the science behind agriculture.

  31. September 8, 2007 at 11:32 pm

    We send muffins to school. A chocolate muffin is no healthier than a chocolate cupcake (except no icing) but they’re considered “healthy” for the school rules.

    But icing is the best part!! (I, too, had a cupcake for breakfast today. An unusual occurrence for me, because cupcakes aren’t exactly energy-inducing, but still). Though another reason that rule is weird is because cupcakes tend to be pretty smallish (unless you go to a specialty cupcakes place like Crumbs in NYC… mm, Crumbs) whereas every chocolate muffin I have ever seen is frickin HUGE. Seriously they are like baseball-sized. I can’t even eat an entire one, and I love chocolate.

    Also, the lyrics of a song I’m listening to seem slightly relevant to this thread:
    Cornfields, cornfields!
    I’m so worried about cornfields
    Because the starving of the world get a raw deal
    When we waste all our vegetables on cherry soda…

  32. zuzu
    September 9, 2007 at 12:13 am

    Farmers make the food that you eat, which is why they get support and your husband doesn’t. 5% of the population is feeding the other 95% at the moment. It may not seem like a big deal to you if some farmer from flyover country is run out of business, but it is. I just don’t see why it has to be an either kids get healthy food or farmers get support type of situation. That’s all.

    Are you perhaps thinking that agribusiness doesn’t exist, and that most agriculture is in the hands of small, family-owned farms? Because I can assure you, that’s not the case anymore.

    In order for subsidies to work, someone has to buy up the surplus. That’s the government. The government then has to do something with the stuff it buys. Conveniently, the government administers school nutrition programs, so it has a place to dump that excess. And since that excess largely consists of corn syrup and dairy products, rather than, say, spinach, the nutritional needs of schoolkids (particularly poor ones) is a bit skewed.

  33. September 9, 2007 at 12:27 am

    Actually, Entomologista, the government pays farmers all the time to either let lands lie fallow or even to plow under crops that are already growing in order to control prices.

    (And I cannot believe that Admin law is currently helping me come up with this rejoinder.)

  34. Karen
    September 9, 2007 at 9:53 am

    On the cupcakes issue, it’s entirely possible to bake cakes and cupcakes that both taste good and aren’t completely horrible for you. Check out recipe websites for good ones. Also, I completely agree with all those upthread who pointed out that banning candy and cupcakes only makes those things seem more terrific than they are — which, honestly, is pretty hard to do since good cupcakes are one reason to continue living. There’s no reason to give food the lure of the forbidden. Besides, I really don’t think that “I never ate anything bad for me” is much of an epitaph. We really should aim for a better reason to exist.

  35. Ledasmom
    September 9, 2007 at 11:56 am

    Oh, I don’t know. I think “I never ate anything bad for me” is a hysterically funny epitaph, seeing as it’d be over a dead person.

  36. Irate Islander
    September 9, 2007 at 12:52 pm

    Well, if we want to support farmers, how about gov’t support to grow more fresh veggies so they’ll be less expensive & more readily available? Farmers win & fresh veggies become more affordable/available for people who might not be able to afford them otherwise.

  37. Shinobi
    September 10, 2007 at 10:05 am

    I really think that the food that the schools should be concerned about is what they are selling, not what parents bring in with their kids.

    Story: When I was growing up the lunch room at both of my schools (grade and HS) sold these cookies. They were big chocolate chip cookies, probably 4″ in diameter (though not very thick). In Highschool they even kept them under a heat lamp so they would be warm and gooey. (And they were always slightly undercooked which made them extra YUM)
    It was not until my junior year of HS that I found out that each one of these cookies had 25g of fat in them. Cookies that I had been eating probably every other day from age 5-18.

    I don’t think that they should never have sold these cookies (though maybe there is a slightly less fatty version, is that a normal amount of fat for a cooky? It seems excessive.) But they sold them every day, like they were normal, and it was okay to eat them every day. But it was NOT.

    Also, re: starving yourself before the wedding, so, the expectation here is that not only will you starve yourself pre wedding you will continue to starve yourself for the rest of your life? That reminds me of something… hmmm what is it… oh yeah… Anorexia.

  38. Roxie
    September 10, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    wow, a mcdonald’s employee was arrested and had bail set at $1,000 for putting too much salt on a burger….the cop’s reasoning?

    George Louth, city public information officer said Bull was charged because she served the hamburger “without regards to the well-being of anyone who might consume it.”


  39. redhorse
    September 10, 2007 at 11:37 pm

    It really seems that there are more kids with allergies now than when I was in school in the eighties.

    I admit, I send cookies with my kids to school with their lunch. I send cookies with their dad to work. He gets four, they get one. This week they were brontosaurus-shaped sugar cookies with icing, because the youngest one got to pick.

    I’ll be glad, though, when we outgrow the classroom parties. Because there’s some weeks we in the working class don’t HAVE an extra ten bucks to drop on the store-bought cupcakes. I can make something that tastes better and is more healthy (no HCFS, no preservatives, etc.) but it’s not allowed. (sigh)

    I believe that if sweet is part of ordinary life, you don’t have the “reward” associations with it. But I’m also a huge believer in slow food and homemade, and I’m teaching my sons how to cook.

    Consequently my cravings tend to be for things like brownies. No, I can’t go BUY brownies. I want MY brownies. With the raspberry-creamcheese swirl. Damnit. It does, however, mean that I don’t give in to as many, because I have to actually go COOK it if I want it.

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