By Ezra Klein
Wednesday, December 16, 2009; E01
"To see what is in front of one's nose requires a constant struggle," said George Orwell. Well, that, plus a crew of trained researchers from Yale University and six Connecticut middle schools willing to participate in a controlled experiment.
As reported in the December issue of the journal Health Education & Behavior, a two-year study found that kids eat less junk food when their schools don't provide them with junk food. Quite a shocker, huh? In other news, people buy fewer tabloids when tabloids are removed from supermarket checkout lines.
Sadly, this peer-reviewed intervention was actually necessary. The junk-food industry has plenty of defenders, many of them paid for by, well, the junk-food industry. It has beaten back efforts to remove vending machines from schools by arguing that kids would just bring the junk food from home or eat more of it at other times in the day. It's as though they are squirrels, but with M&Ms. Schools were all too happy to believe that rationale. Many of them make money through sponsorships with food companies, and vending machines are cash cows.
Led by Marlene Schwartz, deputy director at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, the researchers replaced the unhealthful food in the vending machines at three of the schools with better alternatives. Offerings at the other three schools remained the same. The result? Kids ate less junk food, and their diet was no worse when they weren't at school.
Making something harder to get is a tried-and-true method of getting people to buy less of it. To some, of course, the idea smacks of paternalism. To which the reply must be that paternalism was literally invented for children. The nanny state isn't such a big issue when you're talking about people who might actually have nannies.
If removing junk food from school vending machines proves effective in the fight against childhood obesity, however, the interesting question will be what employers do with the data. Studies show that most of the increase in calories consumed since the 1970s has come between meals. We're a nation of snackers, a state of affairs that's possible only because it's so easy to snack. And it's so easy in part because the places where we spend our structured time -- our schools, our jobs -- make it so easy.
Take The Washington Post as an example. Most floors have multiple vending machines offering a fine selection of candies and sodas at affordable prices. There's also a cafeteria with offerings from cups of cereal to muffins to fried chicken and mashed potatoes. When the newsroom was being remodeled, doughnuts were set out on Mondays. Nice perks, all. Bad for the waistline, maybe, but that's not our employer's concern.
Or is it?
The Post provides its employees with generous health-care coverage. That money ultimately comes out of our wages, but because health-care costs grow faster than wages, and because companies don't like to cut wages, it's a strain on the company's overall finances. The pressure eases, of course, if the employees are healthier. That is why Walmart flirted with the idea of forcing all employees to gather shopping carts, figuring that really unhealthy workers would quit and stop costing the company so much money when they got sick.
As costs continue to grow, it makes sense that employers will want to make employee health more of their business. And vending machines and cafeterias are where they'll probably start. On some level, it's no more paternalistic or intrusive to take certain foods out of a machine or off a cafeteria menu than it is to put them in. But what if you're doing it to subtly change what workers eat?
That's more complicated. But the economics are pointing in that direction pretty clearly. Pepsi already pays its employees to take health assessments. Safeway gives workers a bonus for avoiding tobacco and maintaining a healthy weight, good blood pressure and low cholesterol. As of now, all of that is voluntary. But it's bordering on some seriously weird questions. And as cost pressures get worse, so, too, will the measures employers take in response.
Health-care reform is making a big effort to leave the employer role untouched, but this is one of those reasons workers might want to rethink trusting employers with their health coverage in the long run. It's all well and good for schools to be in loco parentis for children, but few workers want their bosses acting as in loco nutritionist for them.