12/17/2010 05:38 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

'I Can See McDonald's From My House': The Debate Over Who's Responsible for Kids' Nutrition

There are two diametrically opposed forces fighting for control over children's diets: "Should it be the government or should it be the parents?" Sarah Palin said in a recent speech. "It should be the parents!"

Of course parents bear the primary responsibility for guiding their children's food choices, and for educating them about nutrition. No one -- least of all any government official I have ever encountered in 40 years of food policy advocacy -- disputes that. Sarah Palin is probably aware of the overweight elephant in the middle of the family dining room: the role of the food industry in shaping kids' dietary preferences.

The same intellect that brought us "death panels" during the health care debate now brings the frightening specter of government food police, presumably in the form of camouflaged, jack-booted lunch ladies, forcing children to eat their vegetables. It seems like the former mayor of Wasilla wants the government to get its hands off your school lunch program.

Besides feeding their children, parents are responsible for a lot. Parents bear the primary responsibility for making sure their homes don't catch on fire. But it sure is helpful to have government programs that make it easier for parents to exercise that responsibility -- residential electric codes, or safety standards for space heaters, say. Shall we have the government get its hands off the fire department, too?

Palin's not alone. When the Senate passed a sensible food safety bill, which requires peanut butter factories and egg farms to develop food safety plans and undergo the occasional inspection, among other things, television host Glen Beck warned that the government is trying to control our food and therefore control Americans. On his radio show this food safety bill became a government plot to make food more expensive.

Our recent lawsuit against McDonald's for using toys to market junk food to children is unsurprisingly drawing similar hyperbole from the far right. (I note that those concerned with "frivolous" litigation were silent when McDonald's famously tried to bully its European critics with litigation!)

McDonald's spends more money trying to influence children's food choices than the government ever could. But while the federal government spends its paltry nutrition education funds supporting parents' efforts to feed their children healthy diets, McDonald's spends its money undermining those efforts. While most parents are trying hard to exercise their personal responsibility to teach kids' the benefits of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats, McDonald's pushes something quite different. Even though its ads might display brief glimpses of apples and milk, McDonald's marketing is designed to get kids into the restaurants where they generally end up with fatty meat, fatty cheese, white bread, sugary soda and salty everything -- a narrow combination of foods designed to get those kids coming back for years and almost guaranteed to promote weight gain and diet-related disease.

At least tobacco companies had the courtesy to target older teenagers and twenty-somethings. Even Coke and Pepsi don't advertise to little kids. McDonald's is targeting toddlers -- with the prospect of (seemingly) free toys.

Who wouldn't be concerned about a global corporation spending millions on "neuromarketing consultants" and appropriating the innocent toys of childhood -- in a high-tech scheme to change kids' food preferences? Why fetishize parental responsibility at the expense of corporate responsibility?