No One Showed Up to Turn the Lights On at LAPL:
The children in Los Angeles are in big trouble. Instead of helping them in the battle against obesity, the Los Angeles Public Library keeps luring them with coupons for junk food to encourage them to read books.
When a public library begins to sound like the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), described by SourceWatch as a front group for the restaurant, alcohol, and tobacco industries, you know our government organizations only exist to promote businesses and are not interested in the public good.
The Center for Consumer Freedom takes the stand that restaurants and food companies can turn out calorie-laden, high-fat products with excessive sodium for children, but it's the parents' responsibility to decide whether to give these pseudo-foods to their children. Anyone who speaks out to challenge this philosophy is part of "the Nanny Culture--the growing fraternity of food cops, health care enforcers, anti-meat activists, and meddling bureaucrats who 'know what's best for you.' " The Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) is definitely not part of "the Nanny Culture." They're in bed with the CCF. Their response to our efforts to persuade them to stop rewarding children with fast food coupons sounds like a CCF staff member wrote it.
When we wrote to the Interim City Librarian in July (see letter in our original story below), we reviewed our efforts to encourage the library administration to stop using food as an incentive to encourage children to read. We also sent copies to the media.
Who are Zel and Reuben Allen, anyway?
We are troubled by the sentence in the letter that states, "The library continues to provide these coupons/incentives without endorsement." We feel issuing a coupon IS an endorsement of the product.
The library response suggested that we offer a program on healthy eating. We realize that people need to know about healthy eating, but this type of program would only reach a handful of people likely to attend. The letter does not address our concerns about their continued unhealthful practices. Besides, it would be hypocritical of us to present a program on healthy eating in a library that's distributing coupons for Shakey's Pizza.
Instead of touting parental responsibility, the library administration needs to become aware of their organization's social responsibility in the obesity crisis. It's time for our library leaders to join the obesity battle by offering sensible reading incentives to children.
Our raft of letters to the media produced two responses: a front-page story in the Daily News on August 20, 2008 http://www.dailynews.com/ci_10249746 and a brief interview on KFI 640 AM talk radio on the Los Angeles dial.
The Daily News article was headlined "Pair objects to ice cream, pizza as reading rewards" and was coupled with another story comparing obesity in California with obesity in other states.
Reporter Susan Abram quoted us: "Everywhere you look you see children having weight problems. Everybody is bemoaning the obesity thing, but nobody is taking any steps. A public agency should not be promoting this type of thing."
To present the library view, she turned to their PR person, Peter Persic, who echoed the typical bromide that it was tradition to hand out these rewards "to keep kids reading and coming to the library."
CCF appreciates ALA
Scales misses the point completely. No one is asking the government to ban libraries from giving coupons for junk food to children. We join others in asking the library to act responsibly by making better choices for reading incentives.
The story points out that the Burbank Public Library does get the message. Library Director Sharon Cohen says, "There's nothing wrong with a special treat, but I think one of the messages we need to send our kids is there is another way to celebrate than with food." When the Burbank Public Library rewards kids with food, they offer fruit and juices instead of pizza and soda pop. If only LAPL could follow that example.
Abram also interviewed Moira Berry, Program Manager of the Farm to Institution Project at the Center for Food and Justice at Occidental College. "Pizza parties in and of themselves aren't bad, but we have to be deliberate about examples we set for kids," she told the reporter. "If we expect salad bars at schools to be successful, we have to be sure healthy eating includes libraries. We always use ice cream and pizza as rewards, but in light of our current situation with diabetes and obesity, that's probably not an appropriate reward anymore." If she were close by, we would give that perceptive lady a great big hug for expressing a view LAPL does not want to hear.
To present the many viewpoints on this subject, the reporter interviewed J. Justin Wilson, a senior research analyst for the CCF. He told her, "When it comes to a healthy diet, it does not take a village; it takes a responsible parent." Abram added that CCF "receives funding from restaurants and also opposes calorie listings on menu boards."
The village has just begun to focus on the childhood obesity issue and recognizes the so-called "responsible parent" is often unaware of his/her role. Many of today's parents are in the dark when it comes to healthy food choices.
In response to the Daily News article, we received one email from a librarian from LAPL who we will not name for fear of retaliation:
"Good for you! I always felt like a pimp handing out those coupons. I hope there's enough public response to the article that even arrogant LAPL has to pay attention."
KFI News interviews VIPs
Zel Allen: When we were growing up, we didn't see fat kids. You know, in a school you might see one. It is a concern.
Jody Becker: Her husband, Reuben, says with obesity and type 2 diabetes on the rise there has to be a better way to treat kids.
Reuben Allen: Libraries could give out other things--books--anything, but don't keep shoving food at kids.
Jody Becker: A library spokesman says the food rewards are tradition and it's up to the child's parent to decide whether to accept it.
We're still waiting for an answer to the letter we sent to Shakey's. Perhaps, they will decide that this promotion is no longer in their interest.
For background information on this story, keep reading below.
August 1, 2008 -- Vegparadise News Bureau
Hold the Pizza--
The lights are still out at Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL). It's not a matter of incandescent bulbs being replaced with compact fluorescents. It's dimness in the leadership. With mounting concern about the epidemic of childhood obesity, why would anyone believe rewarding kids with fast food coupons as reading incentives is a good idea. Worse yet, the Mucky Mucks at LAPL don't recognize they have been contributing to the problem year after year after year. It's time to own up, reverse their misguided policy, and create some meaningful reading incentives that don't involve food. But, as usual, they just don't get it.
Over the last five years we have sent letters to the library urging them to reconsider this ill-advised policy. Each time the library receives one of our protest letters, a library official reaches into the files and hauls out variations of these same responses we have received for the last five years:
"The coupon you mention is one of several "give-aways" in this program. The library provides these without an endorsement. As with all resources found at the library, it is the responsibility of the parent or guardian to determine the appropriateness of these and other give-aways for their children."
"I can understand your concerns but note that the library does not act in lieu of the parent or guardian. We would not put ourselves in the position to judge the nutritional value of the food being offered or to ultimately decide whether to take a child to the restaurant or not. It is up to the parent or guardian to determine whether they will use the coupon, what will be ordered, and how much will be consumed."
Our first effort to persuade the library to stop using fast food as a reading incentive was in February 2003 when we wrote to every public library in California urging them to say, "No!" to In-N-Out Burger's "Food for Thought" campaign to distribute coupons for hamburgers as a reward for reading five books. We pointed out that the libraries were contributing to the obesity epidemic and were unwitting tools in advertising high-fat, calorie-laden junk food to children. The responses to our letter- writing campaign were quite disheartening and demonstrated their complete lack of awareness and their unwillingness to admit responsibility.
LAPL answered with their parental responsibility cliché, the same one that the food industry uses when marketing junk food to children. In essence, we'll make the junk food available. It's up to the parents to decide about purchasing it or even letting their children have it if it's free.
One librarian said her library did not have the giveaway program but would take advantage of it if offered to them. Another librarian pointed out, "We have also discovered that in some communities the IN-N-OUT BURGER meal is one of the few relatively good meals some families receive." This is a powerful statement about the health and nutrition knowledge void in our country.
In our stories
Fortunately, In-N-Out has shelved its "Food for Thought" program and no longer offers free hamburgers as a reading incentive. But there are other companies willing to jump in and take up the slack. Why not? They have a willing accomplice in LAPL eager to promote junk food to encourage young people to read. This type of promotion is brilliant advertising that probably costs far less than television spots and newspaper ads. Fast food companies know encouraging kids to read is a noble cause, and they know also that they could get away with these promotions--until now. Because we read about U.S. pediatricians treating growing numbers of children for Type 2 diabetes and dispensing statin drugs for high cholesterol, we can no longer ignore the contributing causes.
Over the years Shakey's has taken advantage of the gullibility of LAPL to promote its pizzas to young people in "Shakey's SALUTES YOU AS AN OUTSTANDING READER at the LOS ANGELES PUBLIC LIBRARY." Our correspondence with the City Librarian and the Mayor of Los Angeles once again urged LAPL to discontinue using junk food as a reading incentive. The letters were brushed aside with the usual form responses. One of the mayoral responses was rather humorous because it was a gibberish statement that only an ill-programmed computer could deliver. See our story VIP Rides Merry-Go-Round With LA Mayor's Henchmen.
The Cold Stone Creamery partnership with LAPL in 2007 would put a chill on any health conscious citizen in Los Angeles. Their coupon offered young readers a "FREE Kids Creation." When we searched the company's website, we found the following information:
"We regret that Cold Stone Creamery can no longer publicly post nutritional information on our website. This development is a result of the New York City Department of Health's decision to pass a regulation requiring restaurants that already publicly provide caloric information, to post product calories on their menu boards -- using the same type size as the product listing.
"We fully support the intent of this regulation; however, since most of our products are made-to-order, there simply isn't enough room on our existing menu boards to comply with the regulation. As a result, we will no longer be able to provide nutritional information on our website or to residents and customers of our New York City stores. We regret this inconvenience. If you have questions about this regulation, please contact the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and refer to Health Code Section 81.50."
"Nutritional Information for Ice Cream Lovers Residing Outside of New York City
"For years Cold Stone Creamery has provided nutritional information on our website, however due to New York City Health Code 81.50, we regret that we can no longer do so. Customers residing outside of New York City may contact customer service at 1-866-464-9467 or click here to request nutritional information."
Instead of nutritional information, the "click here" takes the web surfer on an endless loop that provides no information. Apparently, Cold Stone Creamery has used the New York Department of Health dictum as an excuse to remove the nutrition facts from their website so that non-New Yorkers won't know the details either.
When VIP called customer service to request the nutritional information, we were asked for our name, address, phone number, and email address. We were told we would be contacted, and we were. The envelope contained a coupon for a "FREE Love It (reg) Size Creation with plain waffle cone or bowl."
The letter accompanying the coupon was an apology that read:
Dear Reuben Allen:
Thank you for taking the time to contact us.
Delivering the Ultimate Ice Cream Experience is our business and our passion. I apologize that during your recent visit we let you down.
I want you to know how much we value your comments. As a company, we are committed to continually improving the quality of our products and service. Your feedback helps us monitor and adjust what happens in our stores so that we don't disappoint Ice Cream Lovers-like you!-in the future.
Please accept the coupon below. Understand this coupon is not, in any way, meant to make up for your negative experience. It is simply to thank you for taking the time to bring this issue to our attention. As a Franchise Community, we work closely with our individual store owners and managers to ensure they are providing the Ultimate Ice Cream Experience to every customer, every day. Resolution to your problem ultimately falls to the management of the location you visited. We expect our franchises will do whatever they can to save you as a customer.
Once again, I apologize for your less-than-ultimate experience, appreciate your feedback and hope to see you at a Cold Stone Creamery in the near future.
All of that for just asking for nutritional information about their product!
When we looked at the coupon with the beautiful silver lettering, we couldn't decide whether to frame it or use it for scratch paper. Instead we tossed into our gargantuan file labeled Library Reading Incentives.
LAPL received our correspondence and predictably gave us the usual parent responsibility response while the local press, radio, and television stations ignored our communications. For complete information on the Cold Stone Creamery debacle, see Los Angeles Public Library Contributes to Childhood Obesity Epidemic.
In 2008 Shakey's is back on deck to salute the young readers with high-fat, calorie-laden pizzas as a reward for reading books. Our letter to the Interim City Librarian follows:
July 21, 2008
Dear Ms. Morita:
While doctors are talking about giving young people statin drugs for lowering their cholesterol and bemoaning the obesity epidemic among young people, the Los Angeles Public Library is partly to blame by contributing to this critical weighty problem. LAPL is acting irresponsibly by giving children high-calorie, saturated-fat-laden pizza as a reward and reading incentive.
Last year LAPL showered its young patrons with "Free Kids Creations" from Coldstone Creamery. In previous years it has lured its youthful customers with hamburgers from In-N-Out Burger and pizzas from Shakeys. The library should not be a promoter and advertiser for companies seeking to encourage children to consume their unhealthful products.
The time has come for library patrons to shout, "Stop!" to this food orgy and urge the library to be more creative in its approach to reading incentives for children. American children don't need more high calorie fast food to fill their stomachs. They need no-calorie mental stimulation to feed their brains.
In the past we have written to LAPL criticizing the use of food as a reading incentive. When we wrote to you in 2006 expressing our concerns about the Shakey's pizza coupons, we received the following response:
"I can understand your concerns but note that the library does not act in lieu of the parent or guardian. We would not put ourselves in the position to judge the nutritional value of the food being offered or to ultimately decide whether to take a child to the restaurant or not. It is up to the parent or guardian to determine whether they will use the coupon, what will be ordered, and how much will be consumed. I can understand your concerns but feel the thing to do is to leave it in the hands of the parents or responsible adult as to whether to redeem the coupon or not."
We received the very same response when we wrote about Coldstone Creamery coupons in 2007 and a similar answer for In--N-Out Burger coupons in 2003.
We feel that this is more than a parental responsibility issue. Obesity has become a national concern that must be tackled by the teamwork of parents, public institutions, government, and the food industry. Reading incentive rewards like pizza, hamburgers, and ice cream only serve to undercut parents trying to shield their children who are constantly bombarded with messages to eat fast food. LAPL needs to show it is in the front lines combating childhood obesity, not promoting it.
cc: Board of Library Commissioners
Why do we persist in our efforts to stop companies from using public agencies to help market their unhealthful products to children? Because feeding kids cheap junk food now leads to obesity and expensive health care later.
It's about time library administrators realize this issue is not only parental responsibility, but also the librarians' duty as well. Food companies are not concerned about young people's waistlines, but only interested in their own corporate bottom lines. Libraries should not be their pimps.