Many media professionals know that the end of the workweek is the best time to announce news that you don’t want widely publicized. So it seems hardly coincidental that New York Governor David Paterson chose Friday to announce his new “war on obesity.” Paterson’s first battle plan? Two bills that are highly unlikely to make a single New Yorker slimmer.
One bill will take New York City’s trans fat ban statewide. Instead of restricting only chain restaurants, the new ban would also apply to supermarkets, convenience stores and all other institutions (such as schools and health facilities) subject to inspection by government authorities.
Trans fat bans have already been passed in a dozen cities and counties (as well as statewide in California). They are the intrusive lawmaker’s easiest excuse to begin regulating your dinner table. But it’s no mystery why you haven’t seen any progress reports on this heavy-handed legislation: It hasn’t stemmed obesity rates one bit.
Americans have been eating trans fat for decades. With or without it, most people are well-aware of the health difference between French fries and fruit cups.
Paterson’s other bill is the Health Schools Act, which “will set limits on cholesterol, sodium, fat, sugar, and calories, and will require that healthier options such as whole grains, non-sweetened fruit, and non-fried vegetables be more readily available to students.” It would also ban the selling of “junk food” and soda in schools.
Phew. We hope Paterson is enthusiastic about diaper duty, because this bill is almost enough to make him the legal guardian of every child in the state. But if New York parents are anything like their counterparts overseas, we have a feeling this bill won’t go over easily. A recent full-fat milk ban in Scotland was enough to launch a vicious counter-strike by angry moms and dads. “It’s taking away parental choice,” yelled one parent. Paterson is no stranger to unpopularity (remember that soda tax?), but this bill could make him a glutton for punishment.
That said, there is one important element in Paterson’s proposal that we can warm to: “Increase opportunities for physical activity throughout the school day.” Given the plentiful evidence that increased physical activity, not food restriction, is the key to trimmer waistlines, this particular initiative makes plenty of sense.
On the other hand, as one recent Toronto Star letter writer pointed out, there is a far older, cheaper, and more proven way to fight obesity: have kids walk to school. An op-ed in the (Massachusetts) Lowell Sun published on the day of Paterson’s proposal made a similar point. Not so long ago, “walking to school was good exercise,” wrote Bob Reed. “And it was a lot of fun. Today, kids don’t walk. And they tend to get fat.”
If Paterson actually wants to make a difference, maybe he should get behind the podium and ask New Yorkers to start walking more. But he shouldn’t sit on that announcement until Friday.