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“Oh, its just a Kellogg’s promotional program!”

          We recently spent an enjoyable day visiting Letchworth State Park in upstate New York. With over fourteen thousand acres of woodland surrounding the Genesee River Gorge and three spectacular water falls, it is surely one of the more stunning and spectacular natural sites in the country. The campground registration office informed us that camp sites, RV sites and cabins are available and are used by thousands of families every year.

          As we toured the actual campsites available there were kids everywhere; kids actually outdoors playing in and exploring the natural environment. None of the kids we saw were ‘plugged in’. No earphones, no personal CD players, no cell phones, no gameboys. These kids were busy with fishing rods and canoe paddles and campfires and frisbees and such - clearly such state parks are an admirable use of taxpayers money.

          When leaving the registration office I noticed a large open cardboard carton on the floor by the exit door. Roughly 3½ feet long by 2½ wide by 2 feet deep, it was about half full of single-serving-size boxes of Smorz, a new Kellogg’s cereal. The carton, when full, contained 240 such single-serving packages. A sign above it read Free, Take One. The front of the packaged indicated that Smorz was ‘rich chocolatey graham cereal with marshmallows’. I asked the attendant how these came to be here free for the taking and was told “Oh, its just a Kellogg’s promotional program for a new product of theirs, the kids love ‘em, they eat ‘em right out of the box.”

          Throughout our day of exploring this lovely park, we had occasion to go into three or four other information booths and museum ticket offices - each one had its stack of Smorz sitting there next to the information window available to all who chose to take them. I questioned a few park attendants about this ‘promotional program’ and learned that they didn’t know much about it beyond the fact that the Smorz showed up to be distributed free and they assumed that Kellogg’s was providing some benefit or donation to the state park system.

          The list of ingredients indicated just what kids were eating right out of the box; free from Kellogg’s: Corn flour, marshmallow bits (sugar, corn syrup, modified corn starch, dextrose, gelatin, natural and artificial flavor, sodium hexametaphosphate, red #40, yellow #5, yellow #6, blue #1), sugar, chocolatey coating (sugar, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil, milk, cocoa [treated with alkali], mono- and diglycerides, soy lecithin, natural and artificial flavor), whole oat flour, fructose, graham flour, wheat flour, high fructose corn syrup, partially hydrogenated cottonseed and/or soybean oil, salt, natural and artificial flavor, caramel color, color added, ascorbic acid (vitamin C), niacinamide, reduced iron, zinc oxide, pyridozine hydrochloride (vitamin B6) BHT (preservative), riboflavin (vitamin B2), thiamin hydrochloride (vitamin B1) vitamin A palmitate, folic acid, vitamin B12 and vitamin D. One serving contains 60 calories, 10 from fat, 70 mg of sodium, less than 1g of fiber, 7 g of sugar and 1g of protein.

          One might conclude that Smorz fully qualifies as what is now cryptically termed a processed food.

          I asked myself: “What’s going on in this picture?” Daily newspaper and magazines headlines tell us about how obesity has become the primary health problem of American children. Or we turn the page and read about the dramatic increase in elementary school children who are being diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactive disorder) and put on Ritalin. Whereas we read nothing about the well established relationship between sugar intake and hyperactivity. Any of us who care to investigate current findings of sociologists, social psychologists or cultural anthropologists will be reminded that the primary role of children in our society is clearly that of little consumers. A few years ago I entered a brand new 3600 student high school in Maryland and counted sixteen Pepsi machines lining the main corridor. When I asked the principal why they were there, he replied: “That’s what they want!” It turns out that Pepsi provides the school system with some thousands of dollars of funding in return for the presence of the vending machines. The only issue in other school systems seems to be whether Pepsi or Coke has the contract.

          For some years now, I have been aware of the ease with which we could reduce our soaring health care costs by 50% or more with just a few modest lifestyle changes. One instance of a needed change is that the medical profession which boasts of the huge number of triple and quadruple bypasses (over half million) successfully performed annually, and never gets around to pointing out that children (and adults) could readily be trained/educated to adopt lifestyle habits that would essentially preclude the need for bypass surgery.

          A recent Canadian study conducted world wide verified beyond doubt that 90% of all heart disease and stroke (the number one killer throughout the world) is directly attributable to a small handful of avoidable risk factors; namely smoking, LDL to HDL cholesterol ratio, obesity, unwholesome diet, a lack of daily consumption of fruits and vegetables and a lack of exercise. The study further confirms that cardiovascular disease is on the rise in developing countries because rising affluence and western influences are leading to higher obesity rates from less healthy diets. It is self evident that all of these risks and therefore nearly all heart disease can be eliminated through alteration of lifestyle habits. A recent Chicago Tribune (09/07/04) article announced that a study that just an extra hour of exercise a week could cut obesity significantly among overweight elementary school girls. Researchers found that the prevelance of obesity and overweight among the girls studied fell 10% in schools that gave 1st graders one hour more of exercise time per week. The researchers believe that giving 5 hours per week of physical education would reduce the prevalence of obesity among girls by 43%. Duuuuuh! Is this in any way surprising? Reflect for a moment on how profoundly the avoidance of the risk factors cited above would reduce the incidences of heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, ADD, ADHD, depression and innumerable other diseases and the consequent impact on our staggering health care costs. Do you want fries with that?

          We human beings are the life forces’ first meaning-driven species. That is to say, our behavior is predominately meaning informed rather than instinct informed as it is in other species. As such we are the first species whose survival is primarily dependent on our ability to learn and through our learning modify our behavior to better respond to and/or modify our environment. Not surprisingly then, in order to survive as a species we have become outstanding learners. In our formative years the learning capacity itself is instinctive. We cannot stop ourselves from learning and we always learn whatever it is that we are exposed to. An exceptionally clear instance of this is the striking degree to which toddlers rapidly learn whatever language(s) they are exposed to, including the infinitesimally subtle distinctions of dialect variation.

          So just what is it that we are learning, teaching to our children, and apparently exporting to developing countries, that is leading us as a whole culture toward obesity, inappropriate diet, lack of exercise, and thus the diverse attendant medical problems precipitated by such a lifestyle? As Neil Postman pointed out some ten years ago in The End of Education, the average American child experiences over 500,000 television ads between the ages of 3 and 18. And the Sept. 2, 2004 Detroit newspaper featured an article indicating a marked increase in two and three year olds demanding products by brand name. The article goes on to state that two to five year olds are now being targeted as a major untapped consumer market. One obvious conclusion here is that television has become our primary and most influential teacher; commanding (with the possible exception of sleeping) more of our children’s time and attention than any other activity in which they engage. And we never hear about Madison Avenue expressing concerns about the necessity of standardized testing to make sure that children are learning what it wants them to learn by what age. Clearly, the advertising industry through the medium of television has become our preeminent educational institution.

          Kellogg’s Smorz promotional program, conducted in an income tax supported state park, provides an outstanding example of just how ubiquitous and pervasive the marketing of unhealthy eating habits in the interest of corporate profits have become. Should we be making an effort to change this? Should we be purchasing stock in Kellogg’s, the makers of Ritalin, Weight Watchers, and HMOs? Or, as we all know the unlikelihood of finding even one first grader who doesn’t know a handful of “We’re in the Pepsi generation” jingles, perhaps our best option is to retain Madison Avenue to run our educational institutions from day care through high school.

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Bill Dillon (KG4QFM)
Pat Watt (KG4QFQ)
This page was last modified on August 9, 2009

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September 4, 2004
by Bill Dillon