CHICAGO -- Here's a sample of what came home in my sons' backpacks last week: a flier announcing a before-school sale on bags of Hot Cheetos, Funyuns and other high-salt-and-fat junk foods. Plus, reminders about two separate parent teacher organization fundraisers -- one an offer to buy candied apples and the other a request for the children to sell chocolate bars.
I also found notices for a "Wendy's night," in which 10 percent of what is purchases at the fast-food chain gets kicked back to the school, and another reminding me to bring in my Box Tops for Education. When the branded labels found on General Mills products -- the flier prominently featured pizza rolls, cake mixes and refrigerated cookie dough -- are returned to the corporation, the schools earn cash. All this was in addition to the stalwart "Market Day" catalog, another school fundraiser that hard-sells high-calorie treat foods.
This is what our communities are up against. We're in the middle of a national, multigenerational obesity epidemic, yet so many of our public schools are in tight financial spots that they resort to unhealthy appeals to help fund programs they wouldn't be able to afford otherwise.
The U.S. Census Bureau just released data showing that in 2010, 45 percent of all children in America lived in school districts with poverty rates greater than 20 percent. An additional 34 percent of children lived in districts with poverty rates between 10 percent and 20 percent.
This means that poor children and families -- who, according to studies, are more prone to being overweight or obese -- live in struggling school districts where the number of students participating in free and reduced breakfast and lunch programs has skyrocketed since the start of the Great Recession. And as I've previously noted, school cafeteria meals are often of very low nutritional quality -- or can be that way because students get to choose their meals and too often pick pizza over salad.
It's hard to blame low-resource schools, which are likely to have limited physical education or health/nutrition classes and few organized sports, for turning to treat-driven fundraisers to deal with strained budgets.
But while health policy experts agonize about poverty and the $10 billion to $12 billion that the junk food industry spends targeting children, those who fear the "nanny state" and believe there's no good reason for any government interventions -- such as making school lunches healthier, regulating junk food marketing, offering nutrition counseling and making healthy foods cheaper -- simply blame parents.
Readers frequently scold me that "there is only one reason for child obesity. Not schools, not restaurants and certainly not the government. PARENTS need to stand up and be counted."
It is absolutely true that parents need to take responsibility for family nutrition, but not all of them have the wherewithal to do so under an avalanche of factors that lead them to act otherwise.
In my school district, 64 percent of the students come from low-income families and it's been estimated that 90 percent of the students are overweight. Sure, in our two-parent household, much time is spent making sure that breakfast and dinner are a nutritional counterattack to the chocolate milk and corndog lunches our schools offer.
But what about the families who live in or near poverty, have probably had few discussions with family doctors about their daily nutritional needs, and are getting barraged with implicit junk food endorsements through their child's school?
Their choices are to either consume in the name of education or ignore the moneymakers that pay for school equipment, after-school programs, and field trips in a district that has already drastically cut music and art programs.
There is a terrible dearth of personal responsibility in this country, and I never absolve anyone of theirs when I write about contentious issues such as poverty and obesity. But the same people who cross their arms and turn their noses up at any suggestions for improving public health by involving local, state and federal government bureaucracies -- and their funding sources -- have got to understand that even many responsible, well-meaning parents are stuck between a rock and a hard, unhealthy, place.
Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda(at)washpost.com.