Top food cop Marion Nestle has a post up over at The Atlantic about the new study published in the March issue of the American Journal of Public Health, showing that ninth-graders who go to school within 500 feet of a fast-food restaurant are more likely to be fat than those who don't. 

Noting the National Restaurant Association's irritation at the study, Nestle notes:

 I can understand why the NRA might be worried. What if cities stopped allowing fast food outlets near schools? That's just what the Los Angeles city council tried to do last year. With some research evidence to back up the idea, this study might kick off a national trend.

And maybe, just maybe, kids might start eating healthier meals at school?

Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, seconds Nestle's enthusiasm for kicking Taco Bell et al out of the neighborhood. As he told the NYT last week in its piece about the study:

Zoning laws that prohibit fast-food restaurants near schools are absolutely indicated, and neighborhoods that choose to zone out fast-food restaurants are probably taking a step to protect the future health of their children.

I've written a few times about why this nation's anti-fat crusade creeps me out--and why i think it's qualitatively different than the war on Big Tobacco. Of course, I've also acknowledged that, if there's any room to try and legislate good nutrition around the edges, it probably lies with the schools: Banning vending machines and junk- and fast-food advertising on school property seems an obvious opening volley. 

That said, barring fast-food joints from settling near schools seems like a strange and problematic focal point.  

For starters, the idea that the meals kids are getting in schools are a whole different level of enlightened eating than what they'll get at a burger joint seems to ignore the basic cafeteria offerings. My Kindergartener is in public school in a fairly wealthy county with lots of crunchy-granola, health-obsessed parents, and the menus are hardly the stuff of Alice Waters' fantasies: Hamburgers at least once a week. Ditto hotdogs and pizza and chicken nuggets. (Note to school administrators: I am not complaining. I love you guys. Seriously.) Yes, there are more nutritional offerings as well. But the same thing could be said of McDonald's. Presumably, the portions at school are smaller and less greasy and so less fattening than the disgusting mega-portions at fast-food places. But let's not pretend that a child deprived of his Whopper is going to start snacking on broiled chicken and carrot sticks back in the lunchroom.  

In a related vein, kids tend to start getting porky at an age way before most are allowed to leave school grounds for lunch. By the time they hit high school, the bad habits--and a fair amount of extra poundage--are in place. So anyone interested in hacking away at the root causes of our fat-kids problem could probably pick a better battle.

I can, of course, already hear the logical response from objectors: Sure this move isn't The Answer, but where is the harm in trying to make it An Answer. Like all political quests, tackling childhood obesity must be looked at in terms of strategic prioritizing. From a purely legalistic perspective, I can't imagine that there wouldn't be complicated, costly, time-consuming law suits (not to mention potential PR problems) if the government moved from controlling what takes place on public school grounds to dictating where private companies who products are in no way proscribed for use by minors can peddle their wares. I'm not saying it couldn't be done. But whenever we're talking about imposing new nanny-state limitations on private individuals and/or institutions, there should be serious cost-benefit anlyses conducted beforehand. I have to think there are more obvious, more useful, and less intrusive avenues to be attempted.

Then again, if we are going down this path: I can think of countless products, services, and cable chat shows that should be banned--or at least severely circumscribed--in the name of healthier kids. I suspect you Planksters can as well.      

--Michelle Cottle