Fighting Largesse Without Legislators

Kids are getting big these days. Adolescent obesity rates have tripled since 1985, and not only does the U.S. have more obese school children than other OECD countries, it also has more really obese school children than those countries. More so, the costs to our society are big any way you slice it; in terms of lost money (for the bean counters out there), in terms of low self-esteem (remember the large kids in school getting teased?), and in terms of health. The problem and its costs are fact, the only real debate is over what to do about this properly-termed “epidemic.”

For young people, this policy debate isn't happening in the legislative arena. Rather, it is taking place in specific cause-based non-governmental organizations.   

A response to this issue that I found worthwhile was to join a group that one of my friends was working with – Corporate Accountability International. When I got on board, they were just gearing up for a campaign to get various fast food corporations to limit their marketing to kids. I was skeptical that corporations could be induced to limit their marketing, and even if they did, I doubted such a reduction would have any tangible effect on obesity rates.

I was wrong on both counts.

For the latter bit of skepticism, I, oddly enough, found a very specific paper outlining a relationship between TV advertisements for fast food and childhood obesity. And this is likely to understate the value of combating fast food marketing since more than just TV is used to get kids to buy burgers and fries. For the former, I found that corporations respond, just a little bit, to democratic request.

But more importantly, I found myself being attracted to this campaign for reasons that many of my peers find persuasive in their political lives. What I mean is that young people are much less likely to engage in institutional politics like working with a union or a party. Instead, they are much more drawn, as I was, to cause-based politics that focuses not on electing people or agendas, but solving specific problems or adopting certain stances throughout daily life (vegetarianism, recycling, etc.).

As this article goes live, I am in Dorchester, Boston, playing a small role in one of several press conferences taking place in major cities across the U.S. The goal of this conference, as with so many things these days, is about gathering eyeballs, words, and attention rather than getting legislators to wield power.

This is part of the attraction of working on this campaign and writing for PolicyMic – they both operate by using the “soft” power of many voices speaking together or many eyeballs reading together. And most of the people who are going to be volunteering with me are almost universally younger than 30. I can't help taking interest in this fact, especially as places like McDonald's shift away from catering to kids and move toward a more mature look. Can such a superficial maneuver succeed, and what has prompted it? I think it might signal that perhaps the practice of cause-based politics – for instance, just caring about what goes in your mouth – is having a more pervasive impact than some execs care to openly admit.

Nonetheless, it makes me wonder if it is enough to just raise awareness, and if, at some point, combating obesity will require getting one's hands “dirty” and engaging Congress, just as meeting other broader challenges requires what PolicyMic promotes - an interest in policy and the people who make it.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons