Our fears about obesity have risen to the fore again. The School Food Trust has raised concerns over fast-food outlets being close to schools. It is also calling for school gates to be locked at lunchtime so that students cannot go out to buy fast-food and have to eat school meals. But is such a move morally permissible? And, more importantly, will it achieve what it sets out to?
We are right to be concerned about what our children eat. Equally, we are right to be concerned that they have far more access to unhealthy foods that we probably did growing up. Part of the reason for this is that there are more fast-foods about now than there were before but another important part of the reason is also that children have more freedom now than did the generations that went before them. They are used to deciding what to eat, what to wear, where to go, and make many grown up type decisions earlier than we ever did. They also carry money with them to spend as they deem fit. This in and of itself is not problematic but where freedom has moved ahead, responsibility has not always kept pace. Responsibility ought to be linked to freedom. If children deserve the freedom to make certain decisions, they ought also to have the responsibility to understand and deal with the consequences of their decisions. And if they choose to spend money, they ought also to spend it responsibly.
Freedom and responsibility can be linked more easily if the links between cause and effect are clearly visible. But notice how difficult we, as adults, find it to make the link between cause and effect in terms of food. We often get tempted to eat foods that we know are unhealthy simply because they taste good. To put it simply, if I am hungry and I see a bar of chocolate, I will eat it. I don't always think of the effect that this decision might have once I stand on the scales in a couple of weeks. The gap between cause and effect often enables us to make decisions that we would not otherwise make. For example, if I stood on the scales and ate my bar of chocolate and watched my weight increase, I might think twice before I indulged in more chocolate but because there is a gap between an action and its reaction, it is not always easy to connect the two at the time of the action even though we might well know in theory how cause and effect are linked.
If adults fall prey to the gap between cause and effect, then children are even more likely to do so. For a child who is eating a burger, the idea of obesity at some point in his life, a few years down the road is a concept, a remote possibility or perhaps even a subject of denial, i.e., won't be obese. To curb the intake of fast-food in children and ensure that they eat more healthily, it is important to bridge this gap between cause and effect. The fact that children or even adults eat unhealthily does not mean that they wish to become obese or that they wish to experience health problems in the long term; what it means is that we either lack self control or a realistic knowledge of the effects of our actions. We lack the ability to think about obesity as something that might really affect us and not merely a theoretical possibility.
Locking the school gate to ensure that children don't reach the fast-food outlets outside these gates may achieve only that. Such a measure will be successful only in that it will prevent children from eating from those outlets during their lunch break. It does not prevent children from buying their burgers after school or even from buying them from elsewhere at another time. To fight obesity, the culture of eating has to change on the whole; controlling what happens during a limited time during the day will not singlehandedly overcome the obesity problem.
Another possible outcome is that children might in fact understand that the gates are being locked for their own good. If they do, they might also learn that the food served in school is healthier than the burgers they might buy and they may also develop an understanding of nutrition and the importance of eating healthily. But such an understanding is unlikely to occur without education about nutrition, a desire to look after oneself and some degree of parental involvement. Our goal in locking school gates should not be to change unhealthy eating habits for a limited period during a school day; our goal should be to change unhealthy eating habits on a consistent, long-term basis. Towards this end, school meals should be tasty, well-balanced, cater for various special diets, take allergies into account, and generally be not only nutritious but also more attractive than the burgers outside. Further, parents ought to encourage their children to eat healthily at home. If not, children might eat healthily while the school gates are locked but will almost certainly reach for the burgers as soon as they are unlocked. If we decide that it is important to lock the school gates let us not forget that we must first unlock the minds of children and as well as the minds of those responsible for their food.