Fueling or fattening?

[Background: Seven-Eleven just opened up a new store in my neighborhood, a neighborhood that  desperately needed another convenience store. When they tore down the long-since-abandoned Arby’s restaurant that used to sit there, I was hopeful that someone was going to put a good café in there. My hopes were dashed when I learned they were putting in a new 7-Eleven. There was already a Plaid Pantry two blocks down the street, so why our neighborhood needed another place where people could get lots of cheap sugar, salt, fat and alcohol was beyond me.]

This morning as I walked toward the bus stop, I glanced up the street and did a double take. In the distance, I saw what appeared to be several people decked out in brightly-colored costumes, dancing around on a street corner.

Keep Portland weird, I thought.

However, as I walked closer to the intersection, my amusement turned to disbelief and then to dismay. The four brightly-costumed people dancing around on the corner waving at cars were kids about ten years old. Each one was dressed up as a different 7-Eleven product. One was dressed up as a Big Gulp, another as a hot dog, another as a bag of potato chips and the fourth was wearing a Slurpee outfit. Perfect. All they were missing was a can of Bud Light, and they would have covered the five main convenience store food groups (but I suppose that would be crossing the line).

Watching the kids wave at the cars, I could feel the ink in my pen start to heat up in anticipation of this article. What kind of company uses little kids to advertise unhealthy food? Aren’t there laws about marketing to kids, or at least using kids to market? Didn’t marketing campaigns like that go out of style when they forced Joe Camel and his phallic face out of cigarette ads?

But not everything is black and white. The reason the kids were out on the street advertising for 7-Eleven was that they were having a party in the parking lot to raise money for the local community center. Still, can’t there be a better way to fund a community center than by partnering with 7-Eleven to push unhealthy food?

It’s no secret that obesity is a problem in America. According to the Center for Disease Control, two-thirds of American adults are either overweight or obese. Two-thirds. Twenty percent of kids ages 6-19 are obese.

This obesity is no joke. It lowers our quality of life, makes us less active (a vicious cycle) and leads to increased rates of diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. In the US, we spend nearly $150 billion each year on obesity-related health care costs. Yet we think it’s just fine to let kids eat junk food on a regular basis, and we apparently allow kids to advertise chips, sodas and hot dogs, implicitly endorsing an unhealthy diet.

The sad thing is that these high-calorie foods that are front and center at convenience stores are some families’ best option to get the calories they need. That should tell you that we have some problems with getting good food to people, either because it is too far away from where they live or because people can’t afford to buy it. I wish that the problem could be magically fixed with tax cuts, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

One of the best lines from the movie Tombstone is when Wyatt Earp, played by Kurt Russell, explains to Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) how gambling is an honest business and doesn’t harm the gamblers. After all, he says, “It’s not like anyone is holding a gun to their heads now, is it?”

To which Holliday smirks and replies, “That’s what I love about Wyatt. He can talk himself into anything.”

The convenience store is like Earp’s gambling enterprise. We have talked ourselves into believing that the people who sell unhealthy foods bear none of the responsibility for the consequences when people eat them. It’s all the fault of the people buying the bad food, or so the theory goes. This is intentionally misleading—any economic transaction involves more than one party, and companies spend millions billions each year to make us buy their stuff, whether it is good for us or not.

If you eat junk food from time to time, it’s certainly not the end of the world either. I am not a junk food prohibitionist. I admit to eating it once in a while. I’ve been to the new 7-Eleven once, to get a Slurpee when the store was giving them out for free. I’m not quite ready to call for government intervention either. But when I see kids out on a street corner dressed up as junk food, I question the wisdom of the people who put them up to it. I can’t help but wonder what is going to happen to this country, because all I can see is a future full of overweight kids and adults with an array of health problems with no one taking responsibility for what people eat. If we claim to give a damn about the next generation, we can, and should, do better.