The Telegraph, February 16 , 2009

The World Consumer Rights Day on March 15 will begin a campaign against the marketing of unhealthy foods to children. But educating parents about the harmful effects of junk food could also help children to kick the habit, says Varuna Verma

Tanya Castellas was delivering her morning assembly speech when she decided to ask the students an offbeat question. “I asked them if they had had a healthy breakfast before coming to school,” says Castellas, principal, St Joseph’s School, Jaipur.

A week before Castellas popped the diet question, a local consumer society, the CUTS Centre for Consumer Action, Research and Training (CART), had held a workshop on healthy eating at the school. Fifty students attended the workshop. “I was surprised to find that only these 50 students raised their hands,” says Castellas. The rest said they either skipped breakfast or had a quick bite of biscuits or chips, because they were in a hurry to get to school.

CART’s campaign against the consumption of junk food by children chimes well with the theme of World Consumer Rights Day on March 15, which relates to the issue of marketing unhealthy foods to children. “If companies put a brake on actively peddling junk food to children, the problem will get nipped in the bud,” says George Cheriyan, Director, CART.

The CART campaign originally kicked off with a study titled The Lunch Box Challenge. Last year, it conducted a survey of what children eat for lunch in nine schools across Jaipur. The study covered 200 children in the age group of 9 to 14 years. It found that 65 per cent of the children ate junk food and fast food and 43 per cent guzzled aerated drinks along with it. “The survey showed that pizza was the most preferred food. Noodles were a close second,” says Cheriyan.

Recently, CART carried out another study to find out what attracts children to these unhealthy foods. “A majority of the children said they were attracted by the advertising,” says Cheriyan.

Consumer International — a platform of global consumer organisations — has now prepared a draft code of conduct on marketing junk food to children. The code will be presented to the World Health Organisation (WHO) in September this year. “If WHO passes the code, we will start putting pressure on companies in India to abide by it,” says Cheriyan.

The code lays down a set of rules on the broadcast and non-broadcast marketing strategies to be followed by companies selling chips and colas. Under the broadcast regulations, it stipulates that advertisements of these products should not be aired during prime time. “The code says that fast food ads should not be aired on TV from morning till nine at night. This is the time children usually watch television,” says Cheriyan.

What’s more, if the code were to be rigidly adhered to, Ronald McDonald (mascot of the McDonald’s fast food chain) and Tony the Tiger (the Kellogg’s mascot) could soon become history. Under its non-broadcast marketing regulations, the code restricts companies from using any language, colours, images or mascots that may be appealing to children. “It lays down strict rules against using cartoon figures for advertising junk food, because children find them very attractive,” says Cheriyan.

The code of conduct also bans indirect marketing to parents. Many ads, such as an ad for a health drink, manipulate parents into thinking that buying the drink is imperative for their children’s well being. Such advertising will also be banned if the code comes into effect and manufacturers are pressured to fall in line with it.

However, till such time as a code regulating the marketing of junk food to children comes into force, consumer societies in India are doing all they can to curb the junk food habit in other ways. Many of them are focusing on educating parents in this regard. Two years ago, the Consumer Guidance Society of India (CGSI), Mumbai, launched a two-pronged programme to weed out junk food from the diet of young Indians. It asked school managements to get a nutritionist on board. “But more important, we started educating parents,” says M.S. Kamath, secretary, CGSI.
Before launching the campaign, CGSI checked out what 2,000 children at four schools across the city carried in their lunch boxes. “We found that a majority of the children brought chips and fried food,” says Kamath.

While interacting with parents, Kamath found that most mothers packed junk food in their children’s lunch boxes because it was the most hassle-free option. “Many working mothers said they don’t have the time to cook. So they pack junk food or give their children money to buy food from the school canteen,” he says.

Grahak Shakti, a Bangalore-based consumer society, also believes that educating parents is the right route to reducing junk food consumption in children. Its anti-junk food campaign — which goes live next month — will involve holding programmes in schools to sensitise parents.

Last year, the Consumer Association of India (CAI), Chennai, used a similar format to raise awareness about junk food consumption by children. As part of its campaign, which ran in 60 schools across Chennai, a combination of junk and healthy food was laid out on a table in each school. “We gave the children a tray and asked them to pack their lunch. About 80 per cent picked junk food,” says Nirmala Desikan, trustee, CAI. Following the CAI campaign, two schools in Chennai have done away with chips, colas and oily vadas from their canteen menus.

CGSI too has approached several schools in Mumbai to start a Parent Teacher Association that will manage the menu and operations of the school canteen. “The association will work out a healthy menu for the canteen. Each parent will have to supervise the canteen one day in a year,” reveals Kamath.

Clearly, nothing would be better if manufacturers abide by a code of conduct on the marketing of unhealthy foods to children. But until that happens, consumer organisations are making sure that parents do their bit to check unhealthy eating habits in their children.

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