We all became aware of Mayor Bloomberg’s war on obesity this May, when he proposed a ban for New York City on sugary drinks larger than 16 oz. This was an extreme response to the ongoing obesity epidemic that plagues our nation, and worst of all, our children. Although the soda ban was overly paternalistic, New York City has rightfully addressed childhood obesity in other ways, such as making school lunches more nutritious. Yet city officials, including Cathy Nonas, a senior advisor in the city’s health department, have discovered that the lunches have dropped below federal guidelines on how many calories are required for school lunches, which are 550 calories through fifth grade, 600 for middle school, and 750 for high school students. The city is not sure how long they have been skimping on these federal minimums, yet hunger is still prevalent in one in four children in New York City.
This evidence of extreme regulation could only be the first step in our government dictating what specific foods we can and cannot eat and when. Although children may not know the correct way to eat nutritiously, the answer is not restriction but public health education. We need to give our citizens from a young age the right tools to make better decisions, and allow them to exercise their free choice over daily living activities. Mayor Bloomberg has argued that such restrictions are “public awareness” and part of an overall education push, yet experts have argued that saying no will not be an effective behavioral fix. People, especially children, need to know the facts and knowledge behind their decisions, instead of having blind limitations. As the chief executive for school support services for the New York City Education Department points out, “our mentality is to feed food to children, not nutrients to astronauts.” In order to stay clear of astronaut feeding, we need to push for more nutrition programs to be instituted in elementary schools, so that the next generation of food consumers can balance their diet properly.
Many argue that obesity is a pressing issue, and that we need to fix behavior now, but by simply instituting tough rules, the policy will not make an effective and lasting change in society. Patience is exercised in situations such as cigarette smoking, where heavy educational campaigns advertise the truth of its health effects, yet society has to wait until the next generation to see the progress made in people’s mindsets. Although smoking still exists and needs to continue to decline, it has decreased from over 40% of adults smoking, to 20.8% within a span of 40 years. Education has allowed Americans to use their own free will to decide their utility from smoking, and if it is a personal gain or loss. The government conducts research that can help our society improve, but it does not have the right to interfere with our personal decision making. With investment in nutrition education for all levels of students we can move towards a healthier nation that continues to take pride in its personal freedoms. Hopefully New York City will be able to find the right balance, especially within the public schools, and make sure our youth is educated, energized, and far from starving.