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Congress Did Not Take 14.01

Fixing childhood obesity by banning junk food from schools? Are you kidding? I’ll use good ol’ 14.01 (Principles of Microeconomics) to explain why I’ve got a problem with this.

This strategy of banning junk food vendors inside schools probably won’t even reduce the amount of junk food the average kid consumes. Let’s take a look at supply and demand for junk food. The junk food market has a set equilibrium (the price at which supply equals demand). If we want to change the amount of junk food that’s consumed by kids today, we need to decrease supply or decrease demand.

Because the junk food industry is so highly profitable, we’re probably not going to decrease supply any time soon. One might argue that because kids are trapped inside their schools, the supply of junk food is very high, and the supply of healthy food is not, and that’s what needs to change. I can follow that, but think about it. Kids demand junk food, and lots of it. They are going to get their junk food somewhere, even if we do ban it from schools. They’re going to bring it from home, or buy it at 7-Eleven. Taking junk food machines and McDonald’s burgers out of schools does not change supply at all. Junk food is everywhere.

Therefore we have to decrease demand. This means changing our personal consumption and that of those around us, not changing the industry itself. So long as kids want junk food, it will be supplied. We have to make kids not want to eat so much junk food.

So how do we decrease demand? Think back to how the government decreased the percentage of smokers once we all realized how harmful cigarettes are. The government advertised all of the adverse health effects, kids had classes and presentations about what would happen if they smoked (I know I did), parents were encouraged to talk to their kids about not smoking … it was amazingly awkward, but it actually worked. The overall percentage of smokers went down, and I’ve seen a lot of kids who say “No thanks, that stuff could seriously screw me up” when offered a cigarette or other drugs. How many kids do you know of that say, “Oh, I don’t want to smoke that cigarette because it’s banned, and my teacher might catch me, and then I couldn’t go to Harvard because I’ll get suspended …” Well, you get my point.

That strategy of “take it away and it will go away” is just not going to work. Kids will find a way to get what they want. So all we can do is find a way to make them want to be healthy. Making junk food a “banned substance” is just going to make kids want it more. But most kids don’t want to be fat, teased, impaired, or unattractive, just like most kids don’t want to get lung cancer. We ought to be appealing to that side of them, rather than playing Big Brother and hoping they don’t rebel.

Jennifer E. Nelson ’09