I admit it sounds good. Who doesn’t want to put an end to childhood obesity? We all have a stake in this fight. Obesity rates tripled in the past 30 years, and as a result American children may face a shorter expected lifespan than their parents. So what is the answer?
Michelle Obama’s answer includes a $400 million a year “Healthy Food Financing Initiative” and another $10 billion over the next decade to “update” the Child Nutrition Act. But the truth is, money can’t solve this problem. Education can’t solve this problem. The only thing that can solve this problem is the sheer will of the American people: a conscious choice to lead a healthy life.
To be sure, it’s harder to do today. Temptations are all around us. Still, obesity is not a complicated issue, as Obama herself points out.
“This isn’t like a disease where we’re still waiting for a cure to be discovered – we know the cure for this,” says Obama. “This isn’t like putting a man on the moon or inventing the Internet. It doesn’t take some stroke of genius or feat of technology.”
Exactly. Parents have all the information they can possibly swallow, which proves that spending more money trying to “educate” Americans — by, for example, requiring family friendly front-of-package labeling that discloses a product’s nutritional value — is futile. Every parent knows Froot Loops and McDonald’s aren’t good for you and fruits and vegetable are.
There is more than one way to solve this problem. If your worldview is more in line with progressives like Oprah, who repeatedly says on her program “When people know better, they do better,” you’ll do what her friend Michelle Obama suggests and pump more money trying to educate people. Like Oprah, Obama believes parents don’t know any better and that if America didn’t have so much crap available, they’d do fine. “[Parents] are bombarded by contradictory information at every turn, and they don’t know who to believe,” she says.
While it’s fine to improve school lunches and foster an all-around healthier environment, at the heart of the obesity problem is not a lack of education. It’s about something much greater: the demise of the traditional family. As I wrote in 7 Myths of Working Mothers (published in 2004), “Teaching children how to eat is an enormous task. If you want to do it right, you have to spend several hours a day in the kitchen. There is no shortcut.”
In the past, moms cooked. Modern mothers don’t cook. Either their baby boomer mothers didn’t teach them how (they were too busy making sure their daughters stayed out of the kitchen) or they’re too busy working.
“Cutting, chopping, dragging out the pans, sauteing, boiling, and broiling are not pleasures during the week. Besides, you have to change your clothes so you don’t get the suit messed up — but if you’re late getting home then you don’t have time to change and if you’re eating fast to run to parents’ night at school, then you barely have time to eat anyway,” writes Katherine Wyse Goldman in Working Mothers 101.
With fewer moms in the kitchen and fewer parents physically present to keep their children on a healthy routine (and off the television and computer), children’s health suffers. Even Obama concedes this point. In a moment of glaring honesty, she says,
“Before coming to the White House, the president and I lived like most families: two working parents — too busy, not enough time, and I found myself unable to cook a good meal for my kids. Going to fast food more than I’d like, ordering pizza, and I started to see the effects on my family, particularly my kids.”
Of course there are other factors to consider: the eradication of recess at public schools, for example. But the truth is, even if schools offered great lunches, even if recess was put back in our schools, even if restaurants stopped making super-sized portions and candy ceased to be available at Sports Authority (a big pet peeve of mine), children still have to be taught how to eat. And the only people who can do this are parents. “We have everything we need, right now, to help our kids lead healthy lives,” says Obama.
Indeed we do. Americans have never been better educated about their health than they are today. Yet we’ve never been fatter. So what’s the lesson? That Oprah’s wrong. When people know better, they do not do better. It is human nature to do things the easy way. You can throw all kinds of money at this problem, but in the end the only way to solve it is for parents to slow the heck down — and crack open a good cookbook.