Diet Fails for Children in Mexico City

25 Apr
by Regina Cantu @ Matt.org
If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that New Year’s resolutions often fail. Exhibit A: Early this year, Mexico City put its schoolchildren on a diet but left enough room for the kind of cheating that eventually brings down even the hardest determination.

Under the new guidelines intended to combat childhood obesity, portions have been made smaller; sugar is limited; the chips are baked, not fried; and soft drinks are banned in elementary schools. But here’s where the cheating come in:  a sample of what is allowed for sale in schools still includes paletas, potato and corn chips (in multiple guises), and cookies (always tastier if filled with marshmallow or chocolate creme).

By all measures, Mexico is one of the fattest countries in the world, and the obesity starts early. One in three children is overweight or obese, according to the government. So the nation’s health and education officials stepped in last year to limit what schools could sell at recess. (Schools in Mexico do not provide lunch.)

Mexican officials argue that the new rules are successful, even though parts of the original proposal have been relaxed.

We managed to do the most important things, which was to pull out the soft drinks and to get the composition of foods changed,” said Dr. José Angel Córdova, Mexico’s health minister. He estimates that one-third of Mexico’s health care spending goes to fight diseases related to obesity.

The food companies, including multinationals in Europe and the United States, say their new portfolio of school snacks are evidence that they are committed to combating the problem. But they also complain that they are forced to compete with street vendors who gather outside school gates to sell inexpensive junk food to children as they head home.

It isn’t an issue of just a moment; it is many moments in many days,” said Luis René Martínez Souverveille, director of corporate affairs for Grupo Bimbo, a Mexican baked goods and snack company that also owns several brands in the US.

Difficult as the problem may be, at least one school principal has found a simple solution. The snack food salesmen “come knocking at the door, and we just say no,” said the principal, María Teresa Zamorano.

Since she took over at Estado de Quintana Roo Elementary School in a working-class neighborhood of Mexico City in August, Ms. Zamorano has remade the recess menu.

On one day recently, there was a hot meal of rice and tortillas, prickly pear leaves with eggs and onions, and squash with soft white cheese. Her students could choose among fresh cucumber, jicama, watermelon slices and cooked corn kernels. For dessert, there were popsicles and miniature cups of gelatin.

The most important thing is that the children learn for themselves, that they talk to their parents themselves,” Ms. Zamorano said.

It seems to be working at her school. Verónica Cruz Hernández now sends her 6-year-old daughter, Fatima, to class with a packed lunch of a ham sandwich, sliced mango, cucumber sticks and water. No more soft drinks. “She doesn’t want to be fat like me,” Ms. Cruz said.

At the end of the school day, children pour out of the gates onto a narrow street cluttered with vendors selling candy, chips, nachos and ice cream. Many buy a snack for the walk home.

Still, they have not forgotten the lessons from school: Many will opt for fruit and corn cups.

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