background img

How America cultivated a generation of obesity

In 1972, a Las Vegas businessman named Len Frederick introduced a new kind of lunch to cash-strapped schools eager to see their cafeterias turn a profit. Instead of chicken or meatloaf, carrots and a carton of milk, students could eat hamburgers, hot dogs and French fries, and drink milkshakes or soda. All Frederick had to do to square his “combo meals” with national nutrition standards was fortify them with vitamins and add a sprinkle of wheat germ to the buns. Pickles counted as a required vegetable.

As historian Susan Levine recounts in her 2008 book “School Lunch Politics,” Las Vegas students lined up eagerly for the new fast-food-style menu, and the schools made money. But in 1978, a food critic found that given the freedom to pick and choose, most children weren’t getting the technically nutritious combo — they ended up with a lunch more like “two cinnamon buns and a Coke . . . four sugar cookies and a Sprite, or two bags of French fries and a milk shake.”

In hindsight, it’s easy to see the Las Vegas innovation as a harbinger of today’s fast-food-saturated environment and the nation’s childhood obesity problem — now so severe that some doctors predict that today’s kids will be the first in two centuries to have a lower life expectancy than their parents.

But back then, American policymakers were more concerned about undernourishing children than with overfeeding them. “Historically, the concern had always been lack of availability of food,” said historian Peter Stearns of George Mason University, “and work activities that were physically demanding.” As Levine notes, right up until the 1980s government standards set minimums on calories, protein and vitamins in school lunches. But they put no upper limits on calories or fat or sugar or salt.

The widespread alarm about childhood obesity is a relatively recent phenomenon, historians agree. But what’s not new is that political and economic interests time and again have trumped science and health concerns in shaping what we feed our kids and, consequently, in shaping our kids’ bodies.