In a country, where 80% of schools lack access to drinking water, Pepsi challenges students to stave off obesity while selling them soft drinks
Jo Tuckman in Mexico City
Every day small armies of street vendors gather outside the gates of Mexico’s schools to tempt the nation’s children. “I don’t like drinks without flavour,” Raul explained one recent afternoon as he succumbed to the siren’s call of a bright red fizzy drink. “I don’t know anybody who does.”
Mexicans down more soft drinks than any other nationality in the world, aside from Americans, and even their traditional diet is filled with fried food and sugar. Combine that with new sedentary urban lifestyles and you have a country that over the past decade has established itself as among the fattest in the world.
With childhood obesity rates rising particularly fast it seems hardly surprising then that the education ministry would launch a new campaign to promote healthy diets among schoolchildren. What is less predictable, perhaps, is that the idea, as well as the funding, came from PepsiCo. Coca-Cola is sponsoring another school-based campaign, although it focuses exclusively on encouraging exercise.
“The private sector is worried alongside the government about what we can do about this problem,” said Jorge Meyer, vice president of corporate affairs of PepsiCo in Mexico – the maker not only of Pepsi, but also of some of the most popular snacks in the market. “We don’t want to be seen as the guilty ones. We want to be seen as part of the solution.”
In Mexico, Meyer adds, the best solution does not involve removing junk food from schools and restricting child-focused advertising along the lines of recent self-regulatory agreements in the US and Europe. “It isn’t about whether soda is good or bad for you,” he said. “Here 80% of schools don’t have drinking water so if there were no soda either what would the kids drink?” North of the border, PepsiCo sells Aquafina water and Dole and Tropicana brand juices, among other non-carbonated drinks.
The company’s answer – called Live Healthily – aims to teach a million children in primary schools around the country that they should match the calories they consume with the calories they use up doing exercise.
The centrepiece is a tamagotchi-like computer game in which a child called a nutrin must be guided through everyday decisions about what to buy, what to eat and what sports to play. Periodic visits to the doctor provide health checks.
“It’s great,” Cesar shouted above the din of digital yeehahs, boings, burps and jingles as his class wallowed in their weekly session. “It teaches you what you should eat.” The 10-year old’s ample frame spilling over his chair belied his claim that he already eats mostly fruit and vegetables and drinks only water, but he was certainly having fun. The conversation was cut short when his nutrin began demanding attention: “I’m hungry,” it said.
The impact of the programme is to be evaluated by a serious scientific study organised by the National Pediatric Institute but Richard Daynard, a Northeastern University professor and anti-tobacco dignitary turned obesity campaigner, discounts significant success.
“The kind of massive change in consumption behaviour that’s needed never happens as a result of individual decision,” he said. “There have to be policies from the government that make these foods less available and more expensive, while healthier foods are more available and perhaps less expensive.”
It’s a tough challenge in Mexico where it is harder to buy a banana than a doughnut in many a jungle village, and where the urban poor often have easier and cheaper access to cola than to water.
Politicians also have tended to ignore the problem. A year ago the health aspects of a proposed 5% additional tax on soft drinks were hardly debated. It was eventually voted down by senators who argued it discriminated against the poor. The governing party briefly sought a compromise deal by proposing to restrict the levy to diet drinks.
The climate changed this year, goaded along by figures from a 2006 national survey revealing that 72% of adults are now over overweight or obese – slightly higher than in the US. The same study holds that over a quarter of Mexican children between five and 11 are too heavy – a 40% increase since 2000. There was a 77% rise of obesity among boys.
Last month the same opposition senators who voted down the soft drink tax introduced a bill to ban selling junk food inside schools, and the airwaves a filled by unusually direct government warnings that if you are overweight you have “a hefty health problem”. Still government officials are unwilling to comment on how major players in the junk food industry became the highest profile motors behind the fight against childhood obesity.
PepsiCo executive Meyer denies any irony or contradiction. Live Healthily, he insists, is not an attempt to whitewash the company’s image or vaccinate it against restrictive legislation, and nor does it endanger sales. “We are already producing nutritional products,” he says. “The problem is that Mexicans haven’t wanted to buy them.”
As he swigged his soft drink outside the school gates Raul looked unlikely to be among the first converts. Did he know such habits help make children fat? The chubby 9-year old shrugged. When his mother arrived, they wondered off together to buy some potato chips.