Extreme Lunch Box Makeovers: Counter-Marketing via Joe Camel

fastfood.jpgThis is a first-person ‘retro’ piece which I’ve recently shared with Daughters bimonthly and decided to freshen with updated research & links to post here on our own blog. Enjoy!–Amy

I’m not sure when the peer lunch box radar kicked in…It must’ve been sometime between first grade and second, concurrent with the “dresses are worn with shorts under them if they’re worn at all” influence.

My cucumber-eating, water-sipping, tuna-toting offspring shunned her favorite foods at school (while happily devouring them at home) and began asking me to pack Lunchables®,, Pringles®, Capri Sun® …”you know, the cool stuff, like other kids have.”

My translation was, “I see, so you’d like the liquid candy libations and overly packaged artery cloggers that have made childhood obesity rates double in the last decade, with 2/3 of their calories derived from fat & sugar…Riiiiiiiiiiight, like that’s going to happen.”

Instead, I firmly held my tongue and stayed silent. I’d learned my lesson the hard way by disdaining TV as “the opiate of the masses” only to have it backfire as “forbidden fruit” with a powerful allure it never would’ve achieved on its own.

So I clucked a bit about health habits and smart choices and her face turned sullen and forlorn.

After all, once in awhile, throwing in one of the ‘low-fat’ Lunchables was not a crime in pre-school days when I had to scurry out the door half-showered to meet a client-induced flaming deadline.

And I distinctly recall tossing in some of that Day-Glo Trix swirly yogurt into the grocery cart to keep the ‘forbidden fruit’ at bay. But those rarities were based on convenience, THIS felt different.

It seemed like some twisted, peer-driven anarchist plot to stomp on steadfast values and replace them with pop culture pabulum. Erma Bombeck made me laugh at loud when she once said, “My children refuse to eat anything that hasn’t danced on TV”…But this time, the joke was on me.

After a couple days of ‘you’re so unfair’ protests which I affectionately call ‘power whines,’ I thought about having her BUY lunch instead. (Then I READ our healthy school lunch menu. Egad)

It was as scary as the children’s menus at restaurants—most of which yield a ten out of ten ranking of the ‘worst children’s foods’ on the non-profit policy wonk website, “Center for Science in the Public Interest” also known in media circles as ‘the food police.’)

So I took a deep breath. As with any peer influenced power struggle, I thought long and hard about what I was up against…then stepped waaaaaaaaaaaaaay back to soak it all in.

This one was tricky. After all, I didn’t want to start a ‘food issue’ problem where there had never been one before, nor did I want too much emphasis on health and fitness in a culture teeming with ‘body image’ messages.

Plus, our extended family has always been athletic by choice and ‘fat phobic’ by nature, so I recognized the risk of her going the other direction too.

But here are some daunting facts†:

1.) One in four kids ages 5 to 10 years old already have high cholesterol, high blood pressure or some other early warning sign for heart disease.

2.) Virtually all of the foods marketed to children are high in calories, salt, saturated fat, and refined sugars, and low in nutrients.

3.) Food advertising and promotional expenditures were $26 BILLION in 2000, twice what was spent a decade prior, and OVERALL marketing and advertising aimed at children surged from $6.9 billion in 1992 to $12.7 billion in 1997 to $15 billion in 2002, nearly doubling in just a decade.

4.) Childhood eating habits are formed early on and food marketing is aggressively aimed at influencing children’s food preferences.

Make no mistake about it, this is a food war.

We’re flanked by manufacturers and fast-food restaurants streaming billions of dollars into the fight for our children’s hearts and minds. (not to mention brand equity)

Even if you could keep them away from junk food print ads and electronic media completely, there’s the strategic product placement in the supermarkets, branded spokes-characters and enticing cartoon shills marketing everything from SpongeBob Squarepants mac-n-cheese to Cinderella fruit snacks.

Top it off with elaborate retail tie-ins, sports and celebrity endorsements, the misleading merits of ‘high fiber energy bars’ and the Godzilla of them all…fast food. Sigh.

It was readily apparent that this was one of those ‘pick your battles’ life-altering moments that clearly needed to spin in the right direction. But how does one advocate the obvious?

On our way home from school that day, my daughter saw some teenagers smoking on a block near school.

“Ewwwwwwwwwwww….” she cried out. “That’s just SO gross. Don’t they know they’re going to die? How stupid is that?”

Bingo. I had my hook. Joe Camel and the junk food correlation.

I eye-locked with her in the rearview mirror and said, “yep. It’s sad…Over 450,000 people die each year from smoking-related diseases.”

Then I added, “But you know that junk food you want me to pack for you? Guess how many people die each year from diet-related diseases?

She looked at me like I was from Mars, and scoffed, “Die?”

I answered, “Yes. Die. As in heart failure, type 2 diabetes; diet-driven diseases with a sedentary lifestyle.”

She quietly asked, “How many?” “About 438,000 per year, or 1200 people per day ††…almost the same amount.”

Kelly Brownell, professor of public health at Yale University & one of the nation’s leading obesity experts made the correlation even more concrete;

“Joe Camel is not very different than Ronald McDonald. One could claim that they both encourage children to adopt habits that could be bad for their health.”

It sure would be nice to watch the ‘coolness factor’ of junk food degrade to a status as low as tobacco…but I won’t hold my breath.

WE are the ones that pack those lunches.

WE are the ones that still influence the decision-making process.

We are ultimately responsible for our kids’ health and well being.

Can we resolve to include the gimmicky garbage as the exception rather than the rule?

As the ‘swish’ folks say, let’s “Just Do It.”

† Pestering Parents: How Food Companies Market Obesity to Children, Nov. ‘03

††U.S. Dept. of Health & Human Services (McGinnis & Foege c.’93)

Noontime Notes (Source: CSPI)

· Milk is by far the largest source of saturated fat in children’s diets. Choose 1% or fat free.

· Cheese is the second leading source of artery-clogging saturated fat in kids’ diets. Choose calcium in low-fat yogurt or other lower-fat cheeses instead.

· If it’s not 100% juice, it’s ‘liquid candy’ & empty calories. (e.g. Fruitopia, Sunny D, Capri Sun, and other juice masqueraders)

· Nix the oily or Olean chips, and instead pack baked items like pretzels, bread sticks, Cheerios® or low-fat crackers.

· “Energy” on any label simply means the food supplies calories, not that eating it will make you energetic, according to FDA literalists.



  1. Hi,

    I found this post to be very interesting as, as a parent i find it hard looking for healthier options for my child when walking the supermarket aisles. Im constantly bombarded by the ‘popular’ products that more or less contain so much sugar and fats but probably will taste better to the child.
    But you have to think about what is best for your child in the long run as it not only affects their appearance, but their health and psychologically.

  2. I like the link you established with the smoking. It’s such a delicate subject to discuss with kids as they are under a lot of peer pressure. Sometimes it can help to get other moms involved. Together you can really make a turn. If every mother in your kid’s peer group is packing healthy lunches, it might become the standard.

  3. Iā€™d like to say that you always offer valid information and I have been an fascinated reader of your site for quite some time. I wanted to say thankyou really šŸ™‚ for all the good work you do!

  4. Nahhh!!!! I have been surfing over the internet more than six hours today, yet I never found any interesting article like yours.if i can rate it, i would 10/10.. Thank you Fat Loss Burn

  5. Thanks Green Options Media-Amy Jussel for the share

Speak Your Mind