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How Market Treats Trick New Zealand's Children

Letter From Elsewhere

By Anne Else

On Hallowe'en, news of a real-life trick-or-treat nightmare: a generation of children so fat and unfit that their brittle bones are breaking when they run, play, walk or even stand. An Otago University study says 20 children a day - 7500 a year - are fracturing their wrists or forearms. This is a higher rate than in most other countries. It makes such breaks more common among 3-15 year olds in this country than hip fractures in the elderly.

Why is this happening? Researchers think it's probably a combination of too much unhealthy food, too little calcium, and too little exercise. One child in seven is obese. Children spend too much time sitting in front of television or the computer. They drink less milk and more fizzy drink, putting bone density at risk, especially in girls.

Food spending patterns bear this reasoning out. Basic foods are steadily losing ground. Between 1997 and 1998, supermarket sales of manufacturer-branded product grew by 4.2%, but overall sales grew by only 3.3%, and the dollar value of all fresh food sales fell. The share of household spending going on meat - a key source of the iron growing children need - fell from 2.3% in 1988 to 1.7% in 1997. That was less than the amount spent on takeaways.

Whose fault is it? The easy answer is to blame parents for buying the wrong food and drink, and using TV and computers as babysitters. But the one thing almost all parents try to do is make their kids happy. Both kids and parents are incessantly targeted with sophisticated propaganda for fast or heavily processed food and drink, and passive or inactive entertainment.

In 1997, New Zealand Breweries spent $11.7 million on advertising Coca-Cola. It was worth it: Coke became the top selling supermarket brand item, and its sales grew by 12.6%, to $53.8 million, in 1997/8. Overall, supermarket sales of non-alcoholic beverages (which do not include milk) grew by 8%. Sales of heavily advertised high-sugar "new-age" beverages - the so called energy drinks - grew from $300,000 to $3.6 million.

Cadbury and Griffins were among the top ten advertisers in 1997. Cadbury spent almost $9 million. Total sales of snacks (chocolate bars, potato chips) grew by between 5.1% and 12.8%, and Cadbury's sales topped $68 million. In 1998, well over $12 million was spent advertising ice cream alone.

Mothers surveyed about children's food said snack food and breakfast cereals were the main areas of conflict. Nearly every mother mentioned the huge number of ads aimed directly at children, and almost all said the kids had asked for food they had seen on television, especially trendy snacks for school lunches. No wonder the mothers give in. As a cunning ad for a yoghurt-iced snack bar says, "At least you know they'll eat it." *

The supporters of genetic engineering are fond of claiming that it's essential to feed the world's starving children. But global food production, distribution and marketing has never been about feeding hungry children. It's about making the largest possible profit. And as Sue Kedgley has trenchantly pointed out,# that doesn't come from selling the relatively unprocessed basic foods, such as milk, bread, meat and vegetables, that are best for growing children. Big profits come from "adding value" by way of clever tricks such as artificial colour and flavour, extended shelf life, and fancy packaging. Then you use every legal trick in the book to market the result, preferably along the line of least resistance - which leads straight to children.

* For more on food ads, children, and healthy eating, see Hidden Hunger: Food and Low Income in New Zealand, written by Anne Else for the New Zealand Network against Food Poverty, 1999, 2nd ed 2000.
# Eating Safely in a Toxic World, Penguin Books, 1998

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