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Dispensing Strategies: Wrapped In Cotton Candy

Wrapped In Cotton Candy


April 29, 2008
By Michelle Brisebois

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Childhood was bliss. I rode in the back of my dad’s station wagon
without a car seat or seat belt. I peddled my bike to and from school
without a helmet and stopped by the corner store many nights for sponge
toffee and soda pop. Summers were spent exploring the nooks and
crannies of the town we lived in, putting pennies on the train tracks
to see if they’d get flattened.

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 “Of all soft drinks consumed by children, two-thirds are consumed at home”

Childhood was bliss. I rode in the back of my dad’s station wagon without a car seat or seat belt. I peddled my bike to and from school without a helmet and stopped by the corner store many nights for sponge toffee and soda pop. Summers were spent exploring the nooks and crannies of the town we lived in, putting pennies on the train tracks to see if they’d get flattened. 

Gee, no car seat, no bike helmet, eating junk food – all capped off with unsupervised play time on train tracks! By today’s standards, my parents would be carted off to jail, but chances are if you were raised in the sixties or seventies, this also describes your childhood. 

Somewhere along the way, society started to define children by their vulnerability rather than their potential. Today’s parents want to control their children’s lives, from their activities to their food consumption. This trend has resulted in huge changes for the food and vending industries since we were fingered as a major cause of youth obesity. But perhaps total control isn’t the way to go? This backlash begs the question – can a healthy, happy childhood be engineered?

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The health issues related to poor eating habits are very real. Childhood obesity has skyrocketed with Statistics Canada reporting that in 1994/95, 34 per cent of children aged 2 to 11 were overweight, and of those it’s estimated 16 per cent were obese. By 1998/99, 37 per cent of children aged 2 to 11 were overweight, including 18 per cent who were considered obese. We are starting to see type-2 diabetes (the kind normally seen in your portly, older uncle) develop in children. 

Studies done on the psychological effects of being an overweight child, offer startling evidence.  The Journal of the American Medical Association, reported that obese kids were 5.5 times more likely to have an impaired quality of life than healthy kids. This means that their life experience was rated as being on par with that of kids undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer. 

“Obese children reported scores (on a quality of life survey) that were as bad as cancer patients in each and every domain of life,” said Jeffrey Schwimmer, M.D., of the University of California San Diego. “We were surprised it was that bad.” 

As to why kids are struggling with obesity, it’s a combination of factors. Families where both parents work outside of the home tend to rely more on processed foods because they’re faster to prepare.  Parents worry more now about their kids getting hurt when they’re out of view, so the days of roaming the neighbourhood unattended are long gone. Instead, DVDs, video games and cable TV keep kids in the house where parents know they’re safe – at least for the moment. If the boogey man doesn’t get them, diabetes and heart disease might and by the turn of the millennium, everyone was looking for a scapegoat. 

They found that scapegoat in the school foodservice and vending programs. In the face of these threats to its children’s health, society has responded by circling the wagons – attempting to ban all foods perceived to be a potential threat. The era of potato chip prohibition had begun.

The vending industry has weathered a few challenging years lately as it has worked hard to adapt its product mix to offer more healthy options. In some cases, machines were removed from schools completely in an attempt to dramatically slay the culprit. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem as though anyone was factoring in the role played by schools or the home environment in creating the problem.

According to Refreshments Canada, of all carbonated soft drinks consumed by children and teens, two-thirds are consumed at home and only nine per cent are consumed at school. School physical education programs have been scaled back in favour of more time devoted to the “3R’s” as we strive to produce kids with straight “A’s” on their report cards. 

The Canadian Association for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance recommends 150 minutes a week of physical education per child, but only one in five schools meet the standard, according to a 2004 report by the Canadian Institute of Health Information. There is, however, evidence to suggest that the pendulum may be settling back to a more balanced point on the prohibition scale. It seems as though the knee-jerk reaction to attempt to control the choice of foods available to youth has evolved into a strategy where balance reigns supreme.

The fastest growing snack food in Canada is fresh fruit (40 per cent), whereas in the U.S. it is chocolate candy (35 per cent). In the U.S., chocolate is among the fastest-growing snack categories, and in Canada, it is among the fastest in decline. Bottled water is the fastest-growing beverage category and AC Nielsen reports that milk is outselling carbonated soft drinks in the Canada grocery channel. Trans fats are on a downward trend and whole grain products are replacing “marshmallow-like” white bread in the family breadbox. 

During the recent Federal election, campaign promises to enhance physical education programs in schools made news headlines. It would appear that the actual root causes for the problem are finally on the table and just maybe within this context, we can find some middle ground where chocolate bars can live next to bottled water as part of a variety of options.  Nutritionists for school contract feeders are promoting the philosophy that denying our kids completely won’t work. It’s about having those treats … sometimes, and getting the most nutritional value we can from the rest of our menu. 

When prohibition of alcohol was enacted during the twenties and thirties, the crime rate and alcohol-related illnesses actually increased. Denying people the right to drink just created covert and dangerous ways to feed the demand. Society needs to look at this history and apply what we learned to today’s culture. Maybe we’re ready to accept that we can’t manufacture the perfect child raised in a perfect world. Perhaps we’re ready to give them the gift of balance? Maybe the best protection of all is the ability to make good choices? o

Michelle Brisebois is a marketing professional with experience in the food, pharmaceutical and financial services industries. She specializes in brand strategies. Michelle can be reached at briseboismichelle@sympatico.ca.


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