THE BLOG
11/09/2012 03:43 pm ET Updated Jan 09, 2013

Food for Thought

Mayor Bloomberg and Michelle Obama have been waging a crusade against childhood obesity, poor eating habits, and the dramatic increase in type two diabetes among teenagers.

The mayor's campaign isn't limited to his use of the Bully Pulpit. He ordered sweetened drinks removed from school vending machines and lunchrooms. Cake and candy sales for school fundraisers are officially banned.

The Big Gulp has been proscribed by law in New York, causing the soft drink companies to take the city to court in order to overturn the ban.

But from my perspective this campaign is about as effective as Prohibition was in the 1920s. Here's why.

When I attended New York City's public schools, the only time you were allowed to eat in the classroom was during the daily milk, juice, and cookies break in elementary school. Otherwise eating and drinking was strictly prohibited outside of the cafeteria.

My 7th grade science teacher, Mr. Joy, began the term by reciting a poem about the fate of gum chewers who grew up to be blue-eyed cows because of excessive chewing. Then he warned us that if he caught anyone chewing gum they'd have to wear the gum on the tip of the nose until the end of the period.

Nobody dared chew gum in my class. Today, Mr. Joy would be charged with corporal punishment and removed from the classroom.

So when I first began teaching in New York's schools seventeen years ago, I was immediately struck by the students' non-stop snacking, almost all of it junk food, in the classroom.

I was astonished when my students would start the day selecting from a menu that consisted of Doritos, Pop Tarts, Skittles, and soda.

Every kid has a sweet tooth, but my parents wouldn't stand for me eating my favorite Yankee Doodle cupcakes and milk for breakfast. Without any lecturing from politicians, they seemed to innately know that eating cupcakes was not the way to start the day.

Horrified, I would regularly lecture my kids about obesity and the diabetes that can result from a junk food diet long before the mayor and the White House weighed in. But to my eye, these admonishments had little effect.

One Monday morning I opened my closet and found mouse droppings all over a stack of homework papers. I noticed that the mice had nibbled on some of the papers too.

When I told the custodian, he laughed and said that the mice go nuts on the weekends because they're used to feasting on the food droppings the students leave behind in the classroom during the week. They ate the papers out of frustration.

Arne Duncan should keep this in mind as he attempts to federalize breakfast in the classroom. The only people who will benefit are the food suppliers and the exterminators.

As soon as the school eliminated junk food from the vending machines, a cottage industry of kids peddling the same junk food blossomed. And in spite of the ban, some schools have found the profit from selling junk food for extra-curricular activities irresistible.

If you want to know a school's academic performance level you don't have to spend millions on data compilation. All you need do is check the classroom wastebaskets and the classroom floors at the end of the day.

Which brings us to the crux of the problem. For the first time in history we live in a society where poverty is characterized by obesity rather than the traditional image of a child with sunken cheeks and an exposed ribcage you would see in food relief or Care package ads.

Another characteristic of our underclass is low high school graduation rates, high incarceration rates, high unemployment, and unstable families. In short, we are describing a broad social problem. Lack of self-control with its consequence of consistently bad choices cannot be remedied in the classroom alone.

The politicians who appear to be addressing the issues are only addressing the symptoms. In their own way they inhabit a world that is as far removed from reality as the people they ostensibly want to help.