Saturday, November 28, 2020

Kids: Overeating on Pocket Change

October 20, 2009 by  
Filed under Activism, Food Revolution, Media Literacy

A recent New York Times article, “Overeating on Pocket Change,” caught my eye.

Per the article, “… Low-income children in Philadelphia with about one dollar in pocket money managed to purchase almost 400 calories worth of snack food at convenience stores on the way to and from school, according to study published on Monday in the journal Pediatrics.”

“One of the most surprising findings was how many calories a dollar and seven cents can buy,” said Kelley E. Borradaile, the paper’s lead author and a professor at the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University.”

While the study only looked at low-income children (who often struggle to get their basic needs met, let alone adequate, balanced nutrition) — and though I have no data to back this up — I am not so sure the results would have been all that different, even if socio-economic status were taken into account.

Clearly, a lot of  caloric “damage” can be done with a dollar in a child’s hands. (Just walk into one of those bulk candy stores at the mall, and you can see for yourself how “far” a dollar can stretch when it comes to sweets).

If parents of low, middle or upper-class children (for whatever reason: lack of time, lack of money, lack of knowledge, etc.) can’t pack/aren’t packing nutritious, healthy snacks to take to school and are giving their kids $1 or $2 for a snack … what do they think will happen?

Allow me to generalize for a moment here, but most kids (or teens), when left to their own devices, are not likely to walk into a 7-11 and choose an apple (90 calories, natural sugar, filling fiber) over a bag of M&Ms (240 empty calories)– especially if no one (read as: parent/guardian) is looking.

For example, as a teen, I was super-active, between competitive Varsity cheerleading, dancing (tap, ballet, jazz, pointe), and running track (800 m). I ate healthy meals at home, and didn’t really worry about calories, weight, or even nutrition back then. (I guess you could say I was blissfully “nondisordered” the first 24 years of my life).

Soda was for special occasions (like at restaurants or parties) and never kept in the house, and though we could have chips and pretzels at home (Dad’s fave!), dessert was always fruit or Jello. And the only time of year my mom ever baked was for our birthdays–which just so happened to be Sept 13 (sis), Sept 29 (bro) and Oct 2 (me) –i.e., five weeks of cupcakes galore … and then nothing baked for a whole year.

… So if my parents gave me a couple bucks for an after-school/pre-practice snack from the school store (we didn’t have access to a fridge like I do now at work), I’d buy a Grapeade Snapple and bag of pretzels or Skittles or something and down them without giving it a second thought. (i.e., the same “400 empty calories” the kids in the study were consuming).

In retrospect, I know those weren’t necessarily the best/most nutritious choices … but I also didn’t have a weight problem then, childhood obesity was also not nearly at the levels it is today, and I wasn’t concerned with nutrition or food-as-fuel back then, either.

And I have to say, for all my love of Fuji apples and Laughing Cow Light cheese wedges today, even as an adult, I — a gym rat who espouses healthy eating and could literally recite Points, calorie and fat gram counts in my sleep — often give in to a less-than-nutritious snack (i.e., my latest obsession: sugar-laden candy corn) over something that would clearly fill me and give me energy (a banana with a T of almond butter).

In my case, it’s not because I don’t know any better or because it’s cheaper that I make these choices– it’s because I’m giving into a craving, feeding something other than the need for “fuel” (read as: emotional eating, mindless eating) and most of the time, I recognize it … even if I choose to do it anyway.

But for many children/teens, if all they have is $1 — and no one is guiding them toward nutritious snacks at home or at school — are they going to choose a “green light” food or a “red light” food (a la Juno’s Journeys — anyone remember Juno from the ’80s?!)

And more importantly, even if they want a nutritious banana, are they even going to find one at their local convenience store on their way to or from school?

So I did a little informal investigating in a couple neighborhoods of varying socio-economic classes here in my city. I found that at most convenience stores, I was, indeed, able to find sections that carried healthier options like yogurt, fruit, cheese sticks and salads.

But, not surprisingly, these options were significantly more expensive than the junk food options. And, not surprisingly, though each store did have “something” relatively healthy to offer (even if it was just a granola bar), in the more affluent neighborhoods the selection was much more elaborate and much more fresh than in others.

And it made me sad. Eating well shouldn’t be a luxury … and it doesn’t have to be.

For $1, I found that a child or a teen could just as easily buy a banana, if that’s what they were taught to choose, or wanted to choose. Because in many places, yes, a banana was available.

But the banana was, say, $1 (though it’s like $.30 in the grocery store; don’t even get me started on the injustice there) and a candy bar was, say, only $0.59, the soda $0.49.

So what does a child choose when left to his/her own devices, and how does peer pressure factor in? Because the study tells us kids are buying junk, consuming several hundred empty calories a day.

Personally I think it all depends on the child, and their parents’ influence (even if they’re not there) that guides such decisions.

I’m not a mom (yet) but I hope my husband and I can encourage our kids to eat well when the time comes, to make good decisions “most of the time.” If they’re at a birthday party, of course they can have a slice of cake — the last thing I’d want is to pass on any food issues I have been muddling through the past several years!

(Hell, I hope they see ME eating a little cake, too and not fretting over it!).

But I also don’t want them to think it’s necessarily OK to eat cake (or cookies, or candy) every day from a convenience store, because that isn’t exactly promoting a balanced, healthy lifestyle, either.

The truth is, if the low-income children in the study are spending $1 a day on 400 empty calories, chances are other kids of varying socio-economic classes are doing the same.

… And so the obesity epidemic continues.

So what can we do? Don’t we owe it to our children to give them the healthiest start possible?

Studies have shown that parental involvement can really make a difference in children’s eating habits. So how can we encourage our children to make better choices with their money without inciting an unhealthy relationship with food? To say, chips are ok today, but then suggest having a pear tomorrow? To encourage them to make healthy choices “most of the time?”

Since so many parents today aren’t making the grade in terms of teaching balanced nutrition in the home (perhaps they don’t even know what balanced nutrition is, themselves, or feel they can’t afford to “eat healthy”), then does this kind of education belong in the classroom, a la Juno’s Journeys?

And, if so, would that help kids when they’re making choices outside of school, too?

How about you? What kinds of choices did you make as a kid/teen? And where do you stand today on the issue of kids, spending money, and junk food? If your child was given $1 a day, what do you think he/she would spend it on? As a parent, what kind of indfluence do you/should you have?

Guest post by Melissa



33 Responses to “Kids: Overeating on Pocket Change”
  1. I was a horrible eater as a child/early teen! I mean, give me a cookie and banana to choose between, and I didn’t think twice – gimme the cookie!

    I don’t want to say I “blame” my parents – they were certainly MY choices. But we DID have a lot of “junk” available to us at my house growing up. Sure, we had fruits and veggies…but they were never really pushed on us.

    This is one of my biggest fears about becoming a parent. My sister had an ED and struggles with this issue with her 5 year old daughter – she would eat cookies and candy non-stop, if she were able to! My sister doesn’t want to show her those things are “bad” (as restricting can lead to other various problems down the road), but then, she also wants her daughter to get nutrients from good food, too.

    I do know there are a lot of cafeterias in elementary schools that are focusing on healthy eating. I think this is a huge step!

  2. .C. says:

    I always saved my money. I didn’t really buy candy because if I bought something I wanted it to be something that would last, not be eaten, and I was a pack rat with my Halloween candy and made it last all year.

    Then again, looking back I was watching my weight at a very young age… I just got better at it as I got older.


  3. Dawn says:

    LOVE the article. My students always have an abundant supply of Hot Cheetos, Now & Laters, SKittles, etc. There is a convenience store right acoss the street from my school which many of the students visit once or twice daily. Needless to say, they do not have ANY healthy food options.

    Many of them are not being taught how to make good food choices at home, and although we try to do it in our classrooms, it is a little frustrating when pizza is a lunch choice every single day.

    As a new mom I have made the choice to avoid feeding Jackson any processed food for as long as possible. It is time consuming to make all of his baby food using fresh produce and protein, but I am hoping it will help him develop a taste for healthy fresh foods early in life.

    I firmly believe in the philosophy: “Begin as you mean to go”. I want him to have the best start in life and learn to make the best choices on his own. So why not culitvate a palate that favors natural goodness while I am solely in charge of his diet? Here’s hoping it pays off in a few years!

    • lissa10279 says:

      Beautifully said, Dawn! “Begin as you mean to go” — love it. And as a teacher and a new mom, you have two very unique perspectives to draw upon. Thanks for sharing!

  4. NewMe says:

    You’re dreaming if you think that kids (and teenagers especially) will make healthy eating choices if that’s what their parents teach them. D-R-E-A-M-I-N-G

    I was raised in a home where pop was a rare and precious treat. My mother never baked, though she did allow me to have a birthday cake. We only ate whole grain bread (and this was in the Wonder Bread 60s). Dessert was fruit. Chips and pretzels? Practically never in the house.

    As soon as I could make my own choices, I started eating junk food. Not all the time, not exclusively, but I loved the stuff and I would never refuse the opportunity to eat it.

    Now, as an adult, I have once again made junk food a rare treat. We don’t have pop in the house, rarely eat chips (and when we do, they’re whole grain, etc. etc. Just like the way I was raised.)

    Both my kids love junk food. They just don’t eat it at home. In fact, on vacation last summer, at the restaurant where we were ordering breakfast, my 14 year-old son looked at me, with a twinkle in his eye, and ordered white toast with his eggs…because he knew it would drive me crazy.

    All we can do is set a healthy example at home, but the kids make up their own minds. That’s life.

    • lissa10279 says:

      I think it’s about moderation, though. If you’re restricted from junk foods, it’s no surprise a kid will go hog wild.

    • julia says:


      But isn’t it interesting that after being raised in a no junk food house, that’s what you eventually chose to create for yourself and your kids?

      Teens testing the boundaries and enjoying the tasty treats when they can get ’em is really pretty natural – but I think you’re a perfect example that what they end up doing in the long run has an awful lot to do with the example that was set for them at home.

      • NewMe says:

        Yes, I agree. But that takes nothing away from the fact that teenagers will do as they please. Any parent who thinks they can keep their teenagers on the straight and narrow–at least when it comes to junk food–is fooling herself.

        I am indeed hoping that my boys will eat relatively decently once they’re out on their own.

  5. Emily S. says:

    What if students who qualified for free or subsidized lunches at public schools were also given a piece of fruit or peanut butter crackers for the walk home?

    If the parents knew that the kids would be receiving a healthy snack to get them through the time between lunch and when they get home to provide dinner, perhaps many of them would stop funding the convenience store snack stop.

    • lissa10279 says:

      I LOVE that idea, Emily, but am not sure how feasible it is in many schools … it’s all about $$… we know good nutrition leads to more attentive students, but it’s a tough pill to swallow in deciding, ok but who pays?!

  6. AlaskaJoey says:

    As a kid, my mom made home baked desserts for us twice a week, there were always cookies and chips and snack cakes in the house, but soda was a rare treat. None of us were overweight. When I got to college, I started drinking soda every day. Between that and ordering pizza at 10PM, I started on the road to a 70 lb weight gain. Just finished losing that last years. So, it was my fault I gained the weight, by making stupid choices.

    I don’t have kids and never will. But if I did, I’d make sure no food was forbidden, because that would make it more tempting, and I’d teach them that all things can be enjoyed, but there are “sometimes” foods like chips and cookies, and “everyday” food like fresh fruit.

  7. Liz says:

    I think if a kid has a buck and is a convenience store, they’e going for candy nearly every single time.

    All you can do, really, is model good behavior and have good nutritious meals at home. Do family activities that involve more than watching television together. Don’t think you can? “Family Fit” by Dr. John Mayer has lots of tips to help create healthy families. And it’s not about drudgery, it’s about FUN. You can maxmize time spent together — that’s a key for me — and get fit at the same time. If you can do that inside your home, maybe there won’t be so many trips to the corner store…

  8. Forestroad says:

    I used to offer to walk the dog just so I could sneak into the CVS (actually it was a People’s back then) and buy Nutrageous bars. Hey, at least I was getting exercise.

    I remember at the Boys and Girl’s Club I went to in DC for summer camp, they had a snack shop that was just rows and rows of candy (I used to spend my money on Funions and Fun Dip…so gross in retrospect). And for lunch we’d go next door to the Pizza Hut (the neighborhood has since gentrified…now I think it’s a Brueggers or something) and get the buffet. So sad…this was a club for low/moderate-income kids and this is what we were exposed to; a far cry from the summer camps I started going to later where candy was confiscated from care packages and meals were home-cooked.

  9. Tempe Wick says:

    “I was raised in a home where pop was a rare and precious treat. My mother never baked, though she did allow me to have a birthday cake. We only ate whole grain bread (and this was in the Wonder Bread 60s). Dessert was fruit. Chips and pretzels? Practically never in the house.

    As soon as I could make my own choices, I started eating junk food. Not all the time, not exclusively, but I loved the stuff and I would never refuse the opportunity to eat it.”

    Unfortunately, this was my experience as well. I think the fact of it being forbidden makes it seem better than it actually is.

    • lissa10279 says:

      I definitely agree, Tempe Wick. Though junk food wasn’t always around at home, we were taught moderation and my siblings turned out just fine. I only developed food issues in my mid-20s; prior to that, I had moderation down pretty well, too.

      People who were heavily restricted often end up suffering from binge eating disorder … and nine times out of ten, they’re not binging on carrot sticks.

    • Lampdevil says:

      Forbidden food? Of course that makes it all the more attractive! When I was growing up, chips and candy and pop were “treats”, and they had all the mystique and attraction that comes along with anything rare and occasional. I was fed pretty well, overall, but you betcha that my allowance was half-spent on stickers and half-spent on chips and licorice. It really only got WORSE when I became a teenager and the household got all wonky and no one really felt the need to police my eating habits… what, I could have anything I wanted, anytime I wanted, cash flow permitting? WOOHOO! …Let’s not even get into how bizzare my eating habits were for my first few weeks of college.

      It took a while to realize it, but all that candy and snack food didn’t HAVE to be eaten just because I COULD eat it. Maybe I knocked a few years off of my life from exposure to Dorito dust, maybe I didn’t… But I’ve got the perspective to eat better now, as an adult. I am in full control of my food destiny, unlike when I was a kid, and basic nutritional groundwork was laid outside of allowance-day snacktime. I think everything has turned out okay.

  10. sarcasticmuppet says:

    I’ll quote the Fat Nutritionist a bit:

    “Another thing about sweets and desserts — there’s a reason [a young kid] likes them so much, and it has nothing, necessarily, to do with her future as a Confirmed Fatty… little kids are *metabolically active*. Meaning, their energy requirements, per unit body mass, are *huge*. Meaning, they naturally seek out energy-dense foods — like concentrated sugars and fats. Meaning candy, cake, and ice cream. Meaning, kids are perfectly normal for liking, even for obsessing a little, about these things.”

    Her blog entry on this is actually pretty enlightening:

  11. JavaChick says:

    My Mom baked (and my siblings and I started baking at an early age) so there was usually dessert after supper. Sometimes we had yogurt and fruit, but a lot of the time it was cookies or cake, etc. However, that was dessert for after you ate your healthy, home cooked supper and dessert was in reasonable portions. We had soda with supper once a week, usually on Saturday nights. The rest of the time, while there might be soda in the house, you didn’t just go help yourself to it – you asked permission. My mom would usually buy one treat with the weekly groceries as well – like a large bag of chips, but that was shared by the family and that was it. Not that we didn’t snack – we made a whole lotta popcorn over the years (with butter!) and we liked our cheese & crackers.

    As a family, we rarely ate out. My mom fed us a variety of healthy foods and I’m grateful for that – I was always picky eater, but I learned that there actually are healthy foods that I like. But left to my own devices? I’d pretty much always go for the unhealthy stuff. An apple might be ok, but a bag of chips or a chocolate bar seemed better.

    When I was a kid I didn’t really think about food in terms of what was healthy. It was all about what tastes good. I don’t think I seriously started thinking about food from a standpoint of nutrition until I was in my mid – late 20’s.

    I don’t have kids, but if I did I would want to expose them to lots of healthy foods and help them find things they like, teach them how to cook, etc. But if they spent their pocket money on candy, I don’t imagine I’d be surprised. It’s what I would have done.

  12. julie says:

    When I was a kid, I remember potato chips, soda, cookies, etc. Around 10, I started getting chubby (or at least boobs), and that was never around any more, or at least, it was hidden from me (yeah, that worked well). We had celery, carrots, fruits, etc., with potato chips hidden in the laundry room, my mom’s car, etc. My best friend always had candy and chips, and I’d eat so much at her house. These days I eat lots of fruits and veggies, not a whole lot of processed food though I’m not religious about it, overall healthy with a weakness for potato chips. It took many years to get over some insane eating habits.

  13. Miriam Heddy says:

    Happy No Fat Talk Week.

    I’ve been sort of skimming, keeping a vague track of this site in part because I was curious if, after all the input and feedback from FA people, there might be any change to make this site welcoming to non-dieting, fat acceptance and HAES-minded women.

    And then I read this:
    “… And so the obesity epidemic continues.”

    I’d suggest reading someone like Paul Campos or Susan Bordo as a way into examining why that statement’s problematic, but at this point, I think such suggestions have been made over and again and you all are just not listening–or not hearing–what any of us in FA/HAES have to say. Or perhaps you simply don’t care.

    I thought, despite its shaky start, that this site had potential, if only because at least one blogger here seemed to sort of get it. I think most FA/HAES people had given up on you long ago, as I will now.

    For the sake of the women who continue to read this site, I hope you find a moment to think about the effect of talking about “calorie ‘damage'” or of automatically equating obesity (aka fatness) with candy eating and ill-health.

    You’re really failing at managing the diet/FA divide, but perhaps it’s just impossible to do both at once as they are so very far apart in philosophy and outlook, which leaves you serving a function already served by the countless women’s magazines on the shelves today that, on the one hand, advocate self-acceptance and esteem while, on the other hand, they continuously engage in diet-talk, fat-talk, and unquestioning fatphobia.

    • lissa10279 says:

      Yes, happy no fat-talk week, Miriam. I’m not calling anyone names, or calling myself names. I’m discussing a study that came out, coincidentally, recently. I’m sorry you feel the two sides can’t exist in one place.

      We ARE listening, and I’m sorry if we have lost another reader, but I still don’t think listening should mean giving up the stance that childhood obesity is a problem and doesn’t HAVE to be.

      While an adult can choose “fat acceptance” and stand behind it, I don’t see how anyone can believe children shouldn’t be given an opportunity to lead as healthy a life as possible.

      I am not ONLY implying obesity is related to candy eating and ill-health. I know many factors can come into play. But why wouldn’t we want to TRY to do our best, at the very least, for our children?

      • Gina says:

        While an adult can choose “fat acceptance” and stand behind it, I don’t see how anyone can believe children shouldn’t be given an opportunity to lead as healthy a life as possible.

        Well said!

      • Hil says:

        Lissa, I have to say that I understand Miriam’s problems with the post. I don’t find the post is problematic in and of itself–I find public health studies fascinating and I love reading them and discussing them. If this was posted over on Tales of a Disordered Eater, I would have had no problem with it at all, but a post about avoiding childhood obesity seems very out of place on a BODY IMAGE BLOG. Encouraging children to eat nutritious food is a laudable goal, but I don’t see what it has to do with encouraging healthy body image. And I really do not see how throwing around the term “obesity epidemic” is productive in this context.

        I know I may come across as critical sometimes, but it is because I truly believe that it is possible for dieters, FA activists, HAES followers and fitness buffs to share a space peaceably. I really, truly believe that it is possible. However, I think that to create a dialogue, we have to start by talking about what we have in common. Posting about prevention of childhood obesity is just not a good starting point for building conversation.

  14. Gina says:

    You’re really failing at managing the diet/FA divide, but perhaps it’s just impossible to do both at once as they are so very far apart in philosophy and outlook…

    Miriam, I really think it is impossible to manage that divide, and as you say this site is moving closer to the realm of mainstream women’s magazines. The difference with this site is that we can question each other and the messages we get from the media.

    • lissa10279 says:

      I’d like to echo Gina … we don’t plan to be an “echo chamber” like many other blogs … we recognize we’re imperfect (hello, aren’t we all?!) and we can’t be everything to everyone. But we DO encourage (respectful) dialogue and often comments from those we disagree with lead to new posts so, in a nutshell, we ARE listening. And we encourage healthy debate.

  15. Sydera says:

    This article surprised me. If someone gave me a dollar as a kid, I hoarded it. Maybe this was because I got plenty of food at home? Of the healthy and unhealthy varieties both…my parents are both naturally thin and huge junk food eaters. Talk about your bad role models! Even into their fifties they eat a lot less healthily than I do and struggle less with excess weight. My mom doesn’t seem to realize that as much as I love cake, I don’t really want to be gifted with an enormous one for my birthday! Every time that happens, I gain ten pounds. I’d rather she bring cake over if she must and then take it back after the birthday party. There’s just a lot of disconnects between parents and children over eating issues.

    I’m overweight at present, but just barely. There were times when I weighed less, but my family never understood what it took to maintain that. For me and my nonexistent metabolism, it meant never “eating normally” according to my parents. It’s as if they wanted me to “do justice” to the beef stroganoff and someone not feel the effects!

    I am definitely less restrictive now about my food…but twenty pounds heavier than I used to be. Part of it is age, I’m sure, and a full-time plus extra hours job that doesn’t leave me the exercise time I used to have, but I still get very frustrated if I visit my parents and get served a dinner that’s just a disaster on the nutritional front. For example, Waldorf salad, to me, is not salad. It’s mayo on fruit. Ew.

  16. Dani @ WRW says:

    I went to pick up a healthy snack at a convenience store the other day and was amazed to see that protein bars (same size as candy bars) were almost 3 bucks per and a piece of fruit was 89 cents. Yet, there were tons of 3/$1.00 candy bar deals or 25 cent snack cakes.

    Not that I think that kids would pick a healthy choices without guidance, but it’s certainly not affordable for them to do so.


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