By Coach Kathy Kemper

We hound them to do their homework. We remind them to behave in class. We pray that they’ll stay away from the troublemakers who hang out in the parking lot.

But this September, as we send our children back to school for another year, they face another danger that America hasn’t paid nearly enough attention to:

The food in their lunchbox and school cafeteria.

Over the last few years, the studies and findings concerning childhood obesity have been both numerous and conclusive. Seventeen percent of children are now overweight, a health issue that leads directly to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes. The Center for Disease control has said that if current trends continue, one in three children will have diabetes in their lifetime. And all of this leads to the tragic statistic that this generation could be the first in history to have a lower life expectancy than their parents.

As a tennis coach of many years, this saddens me. As a mother of two girls, it positively frightens me. Not just because I know how tempting sweets and snacks have always been to kids. Not just because I know that our schools are full of vending machines and cafeterias that offer not-so-healthy, not-so-balanced meals. It’s because in recent years, the food industry has launched a sophisticated, multibillion-dollar media campaign to specifically target junk food to our kids – and it’s working.

Whether it’s putting Sponge Bob Square Pants on everything from cereal to Burger King billboards or bombarding the internet with games and websites that push sugary food products, these companies know where and how to reach our children. Recently, Coca-Cola even announced the development of a new Coke fridge, a vending machine that would allow users to take digital photos, download ring tones, and play games all while they guzzle down more soda.

So far, the industry’s getting its money’s worth. A recent Institute of Medicine study found that out of the record-breaking half a trillion dollars spent by children aged 2 to 15 in 2004, candy, carbonated soft drinks, and salty snacks were among the top products purchased. And the study further concluded that this kind of advertising is leading directly to those higher rates of obesity and diabetes we’re seeing among children.

The question now is, what do we do about this?

The first place to look is obviously the food industry itself. Faced with a mounting pile of statistics that their junk food is harming our children (and theirs too!), an increase in public pressure from parents, politicians, and the media could help food companies realize that there’s both a growing market for healthier food and a place in America’s heart for a good corporate citizen.

If the industry doesn’t act, Congress should. Already, there’s been bipartisan legislation proposed by Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) that would require outside vendors to replace the typical fast-food fare found in most school cafeterias and campus vending machines with healthy alternatives.

Finally, if Congress won’t act, there is one final barrier between our children and the advertisers who prey on them:

Mom and Dad.

In the end, the most important coaches in our kids’ competition against the junk food industry are us. From the earliest age, parents have the power to expose their children to both healthy food and a healthy way of living. The more we turn of the TV, shut off the computer, and encourage them to become involved in sports, theatre, student government, and other extracurricular activities, the less likely they’ll be exposed to these harmful ads and the healthier they’ll be.

We would never send our kids to school without making sure they’ve done their homework, read their books, and were fully prepared to make the most out of their education. We need to start treating our children’s physical education with the same kind of preparation. Not just their health, but their lives depend on it.

In 1964, the Surgeon General came out with a watershed study on the dangers of tobacco. In the more than forty years that have followed, it’s taken hundreds more studies, ad campaigns, and lawsuits to implicate the tobacco industry in these dangers and stop them from targeting unknowing consumers with their product. In the process, thousands and thousands of people have died from lung cancer.

We cannot afford to wait that long or lose that many lives to obesity. As parents and citizens, we have an obligation to point America’s younger generation towards a healthier lifestyle that will last them a lifetime. If we do, we won’t just have beaten back the junk food ad blitz, we’ll be able to look back and know that we’ve left our children a better world than the one we inherited. And this Back to School Season, that’s the smartest thing we could do.

Coach Kathy Kemper
Tennis professional and
Founder & CEO Institute for Education