The Guardian; 27th January 1997

Battle of the Coco Pops

Are middle-class mothers powerless to resist their childrens demand for fashion-food?
Can poorer parents even afford to?
Anne Karpf fears the worst: a bloated army of all-poweful kids

WE'VE had a national panic about the safety of food, and one about the safety of children, so it was never going to be long before they conjoined to produce a national panic about children and food. It duly arrived last week with the publication of a new study carried out for the Cancer Research Campaign, which claimed that today's children run a greater risk of cancer because they refuse to eat vegetables.

The proposed solution was novel: since children relish the various flavourings added to crisps, why not add them to frozen vegetables to produce prawn-cocktail flavoured carrots or roast-beef and mushroom flavoured broccoli. It may be a brave new world but for the food manufacturers it's also a rewarding one.

There was alarm in France when McDonalds was
laying on a free bus service to shuttle schoolchildren in
for 'un quick Big Mac' during their lunch hour

Of course this isn't the first panic about children and food: remember the recent apple scare, the carrot one, and the babymllk panic (currently reprised)? But previous bursts of public anxiety were confined to Britain, and this is Euro-wide. There was recent alarm in France, for example when McDonalds announced that its Romans city branch was laying on a free bus service to shuttle out-of-town Lycee schoolchildren in for un quick Big Mac during their lunch hour. And an Italian survey recently found that veal aside, Italian children's food preferences are just as restricted as their British counterparts. That vaunted, feted Mediterranean diet is, it seems, being junked.

Although the current anxiety has a broader, more symbolic dimension, contemporary kids certainly have refined the art of faddism. There's one family where the older child will only eat bowshaped pasta, and the younger refuses any but twirl-shapes (the despairing mother is now alternating the two). Hearing such tales I used to feel complacent: my children have never eaten a single spoonful of commercially prepared baby food and have been fed exclusively on a wide range of fresh, home-made meals. Nutritionally, I belong with the angels. But alas, their adventurousness with food hasn't lasted, and my seven-year-old (despite packed lunches) is a new recruit to the faddist ranks.

What's more, inevitably, as a result of my zeal, her unattainable object of desire is a chicken nugget. But our children's preferences and our anxiety over them are shaped by much more than individual hopes and tastes. Though eating seems like the most personal activity, it's actually one of the most culturally-determined. My daughter can identify and name every single product that her friends eat regularly: when the gap between what a child and its peers eat is too great, the child feels ucomfortable - to children conformity in food is just as important as in clothes. Indeed a study has shown that a child who prefers peas to carrots will, if seated with children who prefer carrots, choose carrots over peas, and after a few days will say that they actually prefer them.

kids have become a lucrative marketing niche
with products targeted entirely at them

Food has long been the site of power struggles between parents and children, but what has changed over the past 20 years has been the creation of a children's culinary ghetto. In traditional cultures children, and adults eat the same food together, but unprecedentedly in ours, kids have become a lucrative marketing niche with products targeted entirely at them. Nursery food was always bland, but it was also a variant of`adult food; today's children occupy a cordoned-off zone of spaghetti hoops and turkey dinosaurs.

In some sense, this is fine: children use food to differentiate themselves from adults. Anthopologist Allison James has argued that sweets - their ingredients, texture and the way they're eaten (put in the mouth, taken out, then put in again) - blatantly violate the culture of adult eating. Indeed children's culture inverts the rules of adults' culture: what we prize, they trash, and vice versa - all part of the great psycho-social separatiom from parents which children must engage in.

McDonalds set a trend in the l960s,
introducing the Ronald McDonald clown
to help establish the company's dominance

But the might of the food companies has now changed the picture; food has become a branch of entertainment. Cartoon characters, already familiar to children from toys and television, now also saturate their daily meals; regularly used to market convenience foods to kids, "character licensing" is a billion-dollar industry. McDonalds set a trend in the l960s, introducing the Ronald McDonald clown to help establish the company's dominance - especially, a senior vice-president of the comp'any admitted recently, in countries where there was previously no hamburger tradition.

Children's food is heavily advertised on television: one survey found that over half of all advertisements during a week of children's television were for food and soft drinks (most laced with fat, sugar or both), eight times higher than for any other category including toys. In another survey, 85 per cent of children had asked a parent to buy them a food they'd seen advertised on TV and, given their fabled "pester-power", got it. Studies have shown that quite small children are ferociously brand loyal, with a remarkable memory for jingles.

All this is undeniable, but it's also true that many current fears are misplaced. The Cancer Research Campaign study was carried out among working-class families, and yet a Mintel survey found that poor people were much less likely to worry about nutrition than rich. This isn't because they're feckless, but because they've so much else to worry about: it's well-documented now that eating healthily is dearer and isn't an option for the poor - simply providing enough food for their children is their priority. As food researcher Suzi Leather has pointed out, convenience foods may be high in fat and sugar but they're predictable and entail less wastage "if you are poor, you cannot afford mistakes". So the children of the middle classes eat better but their parents worry more.

WHENEVER the subject of children and food is raised, women are in for blame. This time it's been hinted that, by acquiescing in their children's prohibitions and preferences, mothers have been morally lax: indeed fibre and moral fibre have become closely linked in the popular imagination -- as if a deficency in the latter has caused a deflict in the former. In fact women are subjected to competing maternal ideologies: the good mother must maintain the family harmony and its health. Increasingly, we find ourselves unable simultaneously to do both.

When anxiety sweeps across the country like a Mexican wave, we can be sure it also carries broader concerns. A panic about the unhealthiness of our children's food, with its polarised imagery (pure children, impure food) expresses potent, if conflicting, fears about our world and the adulteration of our future. After air and water, food is the most important thing we ingest: our current anxiety speaks of the penetration of agribusiness into the heart of our children,bolluting their very marrow with the big C.

For over a decade, health education campaigns have been plying us with information about a healthy diet and, with the stamp of Thatcherism, urging us to exercise individual choice to become healthier; now our children are using that same touted choice to eat unhealthily. Middle-class families, eating organic to counter a sense of powerlessness in the face of an omnipotent food industry, are finding themselves powerless in the face of children subsisting solely on Coco Pops and Hula Hoops. So the current panic also evokes images of children bloated not just vvith fat but also with power, a monstrous army of uncontainable kids.

As Gertrude Stein might have said, a carrot is a carrrot is a prawn-cocktail-flavored vegetable.

See also :
  • A Spoonful of Suger - an international comparative survey on television food advertising aimed at children
  • Advertising to children - UK the worst in Europe - Food Magazine; Jan / Feb 1997

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