It's taken an issue as honking big as the obesity epidemic to do it, but the invisibility cloak that's long protected the junk food industry from public scrutiny and debate has finally started to slip.
In mid-October, Education Minister Gerard Kennedy moved to ban junk food from vending machines in elementary schools, an initiative British Columbia quickly followed. Some 20 U.S. state governments, and cities like New York, Los Angeles and Seattle, have also jumped on the bandwagon.
Though sales from school vending machines are modest, the ban has started a movement that will quickly build momentum until junk food becomes a controlled substance like tobacco - heavily taxed, with retail regulations and advertising restrictions.
Diseases linked to obesity and junk food addiction already rival those linked to smoking as top causes of preventable death and leading factors in runaway health care budgets. Soon the two industries will be competing for the most damage-recovery lawsuits. Like tobacco, fast food will be legal but marked by skull-and-crossbones warnings, off-limits in public spaces and shunned in respectable gatherings.
Gandhi once outlined the life cycle for social change issues: first they ignore you, then they ridicule and denounce you, then they debate you, then you win. This is the trajectory healthy food system advocates are on, though at present they're barely out of the first phase.
As essential as food is to daily life, health, business and the environment, the food industry has enjoyed almost 90 undisturbed years without public policy controversy. It has functioned exactly like Muzak in superstores. It's been everywhere - championing charities, funding nutrition conferences and research, financing women's and family magazines, sponsoring sports and TV shows, dominating main streets - but has always melted into the woodwork.
Like Muzak, its effect has been inaudible, invisible, unnoticed, visceral. It has dominated the unconscious, the submerged nine-tenths of the mind, and hasn't had to worry about what the superego was fretting about.
Until obesity waddled along, the junk food industry epitomized deep or hegemonic power.
Food is one of the most depoliticized and privatized sectors of the economy, with less public financing of infrastructure and regulation than the arts, energy, transportation or shelter. You're legally entitled to much more information about your car, clothes, electrical outlets or house, for example, than you are about the food you put in your body.
Even those charged with policing the industry have to pussyfoot around. Phrases such as "eat less fat and sugar" are verboten, and the recommendation is to "eat more lean meats." Obesity became epidemic over the past decade while health authorities wrung their hands, confining themselves to criticizing dieting and promoting self-esteem and respect for all body shapes and encouraging a range of healthful individual behaviours. Outside of Quebec, Sweden and Finland, junk food advertisers have had complete access to children's minds, even in publicly financed institutions.
Obesity has done to food politics what landfill and incineration sites near nice neighbourhoods did to environmental politics. The food industry can carry on, but "not in my backyard," which for children means school. The industry has gone too far, and ticked off moms.
The campaign to limit the sway of junk food in public spaces builds on a centuries-old Anglo-American tradition of promoting social policy change in the name of children. Adults are big enough to bear personal responsibility for how they cope in the marketplace, the mantra goes, but children aren't, so we can make an exception for them and let the government step in.
Because of this tradition, it's education, not health departments, that has taken on the all-powerful food industry with measures to limit junk food. Indeed, senior Ontario health ministry staff didn't learn of the provincial education initiative until the day before Kennedy made his public announcement in October.
Focusing on children not only allows anti-hunger advocates to tug at the heartstrings of potential donors, but it also enables health advocates to win legislative breakthroughs they might not otherwise make.
There's also a strong legal case that schools have a "duty of care" and could be liable for billions of dollars in damages when the inevitable bills for childhood obesity and habits encouraged while attending school come due.
However, there are severe limits to child-centred policy reform. Most children live in families. They go hungry because other family members, including full-grown adults, also go hungry. They scarf trash because that's what their parents buy for them. You can't ensure that kids are well fed without doing something so that all people, including parents, are also well fed. Programs that focus only on children are more expensive but less effective than those that would promote a baseline of health for all. As well, junk food sales in schools isn't the sole cause of obesity. Overweight is the outcome of a series of abusive lifestyle systems fostering passive and mindless consumption, the good life with no physical effort and no reason to leave the home entertainment centre. Banning foods of minimal or negative nutritional value from elementary school vending machines is a start. It's a wise and logical starting place because it identifies public and government responsibility for the "obesogenic environment." It makes an ethical statement by ending the shameful period when educators abused compulsory school attendance to provide captive markets for corporations.
Fat chance that limiting junk food access in schools will reverse the trend toward overweight, obesity and their associated behaviours. Obesity is not just about schools. It's mainly about public health, what experts call "population health" as distinct from individual cures and counselling.
There's a smoky line that blurs the distance between school- and child-centred policy and broader public health policy. The tobacco industry knows how it goes. The cycle starts with leading public officials saying there is indeed a health problem. We can now check that one off. Next comes identifying the product as illegitimate and limiting the places where it can be consumed. Hospitals started banning smokers during the 1970s (though most have since become addicted to pushing junk food in their lobbies).
Then come warning labels that are understandable to someone without a PhD in chemistry. If the warnings on cigarette packages set the standard, we can expect something like "eating too much of this food will cause you to die of heart disease or diabetes."
Then come multi-billion-dollar lawsuits that eat up industry profits. We've been there and done all that with tobacco. But it will likely proceed much faster with junk food, if only because the road is now known.