From the Heartland: Boxed Lunch

April 18, 2011 Updated: April 18, 2011


An impressive collection of vintage lunch boxes decorates the dining room of a Thai restaurant near my home. While the food at this establishment isn’t spectacular, the whimsical décor makes for a thoroughly enjoyable dining experience. For me, the colorful tin and plastic containers featuring beloved characters from my television watching past actually serve to improve the flavor of an otherwise mediocre pad kee mao.

While it may seem ridiculous to suggest that these lunch boxes might possess some secret appetite inducing technology, new research indicates that they might; sort of. It’s not the lunch box itself, of course, but the star power of the cartoons featured on the container.

A study published last month in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine found what should come as no surprise—the presence of familiar cartoon celebrities significantly influence children’s food choices.

“The use of trade spokes-characters is a popular marketing practice in child-directed products because the presence of these figures helps children identify and remember the associated product,” researchers concluded.

For decades, marketers have pushed sugar-laden, chemically enhanced, and highly processed food products with the help of colorful personalities specifically designed to woo and lure children. Recent data from the Federal Trade Commission reveals that U.S. food and beverage companies spend more than $1.6 billion a year on the practice.

Yet, despite the identification of an obvious culprit, some still want to lay blame on the actual lunch box. An elementary school in Chicago now forbids kids from bringing any food (healthy or otherwise) from home. At Little Village Academy children are either forced to eat what’s served in the cafeteria or go hungry.

While this extreme restriction does permit some flexibility for medical necessity, parents and children are furious. Students are reportedly pitching most of the meals they’re forced to buy.

But Principal Elsa Carmona argues that the policy is designed to promote healthy eating. "Nutrition wise, it is better for the children to eat at the school," Carmona told the Chicago Tribune. "It's about the nutrition and the excellent quality food that they are able to serve (in the lunchroom)."

Carmona states that her totalitarian food ban is “common.” If so, I find this supposed trend worrisome. Not only because, as the Tribune points out, it funnels any and all lunch money to the district’s food provider (what a racket!), but also because it presents no opportunity for kids to make their own healthy choices. Just eat what they tell you, like it or lump it. Sounds like a recipe for resentment and rebellion to me.

While I can certainly appreciate that concerned administrators are trying to tackle a junk food problem, I’m wary of the heavy-handed, dictatorial approach.

Why can’t they just exercise some standards? This is bad; that is not. This would actually teach kids something. There may have to be some debate in determining appropriate stipulations, but I believe this would be an excellent discussion for children to witness.

Here’s one suggestion: nothing with a fantasy character or hypnotic ad campaign directed specifically at kids. And another: If all of the ingredients didn’t come from an animal or grow from the earth, put it back.

Anything less has no business in school. Anything less is not really food. Some edible products aren’t prepared, they’re manufactured—like a drug—designed to be addictive. Many years were spent concocting formulae that made sure you’d come back. Again and again. Hooked. The crack cocaine of foods.

I think it’s disgusting what they try to sell kids. And I’m not just talking about the product. They’re also selling a dream—the cartoons’ promise. A “magically delicious” world of fun and adventure. Life is a perpetual happy meal.

We need to teach our kids that healthy eating isn’t merely about calorie intake, whole grains, and proper ratios of fat to protein. At its core healthy eating is about respect—respect for ingredients, respect for the earth, respect for our bodies, and respect for life.

I see no respect in the manipulative practice of peddling junk food to children. In fact it’s insulting. Nutritionally deficient, high profit margin products propped up by cartoon characters that pretend to be your friends. But they’re not really your friends. A real friend wouldn’t treat you like that.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Follow Conan on Twitter: @ConanMilner