Health & Science

No more junk food next to Mexican schools?

The Mexican Senate unanimously voted against the junk food to be sold next to schools. This is the latest effort in reducing the country’s staggering child obesity rate.

On February 11, 2021, the Mexican Senate unanimously voted a modification of the article 75 of the General Educational law in order to forbid junk food sold close to school campuses.

Mexican eating and drinking habits are a massive health issue for the government. In 2016, Mexico even issued an emergency alert because of the deaths due to diabetes.

According to an OECD report from 2019, 73% of Mexicans are overweight. Worse than that, 1 in 3 children is overweight and child obesity doubled between 1996 and 2016, reaching a world-record ratio of 15%.

The vote, carried out remotely for the first time because of the pandemic, is the latest attempt to reduce a staggeringly high child obesity rate.

candies in Mexico
Candies and sweets in Mexico

A decade-old fight against junk food

The proposal, which was submitted in January 2020 before schools closed, is indeed only stacking on the pile of restrictions trying to combat unhealthy diets among children.

Earlier in October, a new package-labeling order was enacted. It now forces to inform the nutritional quality of the products with the quantity of sugar, salt or saturated fat in them.

On top of that, cereal brands like Kellogg’s can’t use a packaging with friendly and appealing characters like celebrities or Tony the Tiger on the Frosted Flakes.

Neutral cereal brands

Last August, Oaxaca, a southern Mexican region, prohibited junk food, or “comida chatarra“, and soft drinks (sodas) for children under 18. The state of Tabasco followed with a similar act shortly after. In 2015, schools had to provide plain drinking water.

One year before, the government implemented a tax on sugary drinks and some products weren’t allowed to advertise on children TV programs anymore.

Retrospectively, some guidelines seemed very minimal. In 2011, soft drinks were not sold in elementary schools anymore. But chips, baked not fried, candies and cookies were still available.

More restrictions or better education?

The law doesn’t specify which products are considered as unhealthy other than they should follow the classifications of the Mexican Secretary of Health.

The food industry giants would not have appreciated a clear statement of faulty brands, already hit by recent measures. Corporations are more in favor of another approach, one that calls more for personal responsibility, like the parent’s, and the promotion of a better food education.

The food industry also considers that all their efforts put into healthier products would compete with the junk street food anyway. The new law aims at reducing these risks even if it doesn’t state where the restrictions will apply.

In front of economic arguments, the OECD estimates Mexican obesity removes 5.5 percentage points of the country’s gross domestic product.

But the issue is also more complex.

A deep societal issue

Mexicans politicians may also disagree on who should be responsible for the youngsters’ health.

In Oaxaca, the parents are put in charge of respecting the law.

But the national proposal mentions that education authorities are responsible in prohibiting selling food with low nutritional value and high calories in the surroundings of school campuses. Moreover, they will need to provide healthy food in their buildings, preferably produced locally.

Yet, it is not custom for schools to provide a proper lunch, especially in urban areas.

The pupils are likely to eat snacks before a meal after class, later in the afternoon. Instead, they get a small lunch bag from their parents or receive money to buy food, directly at school or in the street.

A 2013 study performed in Tijuana looked at the lunch pack they received. Figures were forceful: 99% of the lunch packs for primary school was prepared at home, and 73% of them was considered as unhealthy. In elementary school, 99% of the lunch packs turned out to be unhealthy.

Another research was published in 2019 based on interviews to children aged between 8 and 12 in Mexico city. The goal was to understand the role of social environments in obesity. It found that “pervasive discourses surrounding food and physical activity” constructed their nutrition choices. Three social places model their choices: school, home, street. And the study to conclude: “It is clear from the research that parents and teachers need more support in helping their children make healthy choices“.

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