The Freedom to Choose Poorly

It was always a dangerous question: "Would you like some broccoli?"

Dangerous, because it wasn't really a question.  If I said "no," I would incur a Look until such time as I meekly helped myself to a moderate amount and polished it off without complaint.

Believe me, I think parents have the right to do this, and I think they should do it.  I have little sympathy for the mother who complains that her children won't eat anything but macaroni and hot dogs; few children would behave differently, given the choice.  I think my appreciation of healthy and diverse foods stems from this strictly-imposed rule growing up.

But where should we draw the line?  If that mother's behavior is ridiculous, it is equally ridiculous for the government to ban products it deems sufficiently unhealthy, like hydrogenated oils or cigarettes.  Clearly, adults are granted the freedom to choose poorly.  Call it one of the perks of adulthood.

I remember when our school made the switch from junk food to health food.  I went to a private school where there was no hot lunch; we ordered out several times a week for pizza and Chick-Fil-A, but the other days we had to bring our own lunches, supplemented sometimes (or all the time) by the offerings on the table outside the cafeteria.  Doritos, M&Ms, and Coke ruled the afternoons.

When we had a schoolwide Health Day, the cafeteria switched to selling yogurt, granola bars and juice.  Surprise!  They found that when they have no other choice, kids will eat more healthy foods.  Shortly thereafter, they made a permanent switch.  There was grumbling, but the kids who had to have junk food just brought their own from home.  The rest of us enjoyed crackers instead of chips, fruit instead of candy and Spritzers instead of sodas.  It wasn't a big deal.

The question, as always, has to do with degrees. This recent article from the Times hints at it, wondering about how far schools and parents should go to keep their children from eating junk.  What about fundraisers that sell candy bars and lollipops between classes to support the endless stream of new uniforms and sports equipment?  Bake sales that raise money for charities?  Should we draw a line between yogurt and ice cream, or apple juice and soda, when they boast an equal number of empty calories?  And should we give seventeen-year-olds the benefit of the doubt, or treat them just like seven-year-olds?  Once you begin to legislate lifestyle choices, it becomes awfully difficult to pin down where and how the rules should apply.