On Campus

Ontario students say 'stick it' to fast food

Campaign to fight obesity


Student leaders in Ontario say it’s time their peers took a stand against the food they face in cafeterias and in the fast food restaurants that often ring schools.

Tired of poor quality food options, they are rolling out a campaign calling on students to boycott fast food for the month of November.

The effort, called “Stick it to fast food” is launching under a provocative banner. Its logo, already emblazoned on T-shirts kids can order, looks both like a fork with a single standing tine — and a hand with the middle finger raised.

“In our school boards all the time we hear that cafeterias aren’t good enough, students aren’t healthy enough. Obesity rates are high. All these statistics. (But) when it comes to doing something, even the adults don’t know what to do,” says Hirad Zafari, a Grade 12 student at Toronto’s Don Mills Collegiate and president of the Ontario Student Trustees Association.

“So we thought: Why not, as the students who are elected to look out for the best interests of the students, do something to make it better?”

Zafari is a leader of the Stick It campaign, which launches today in Toronto.

Students are being urged to go to the campaign’s website — stickittofastfood.org — and sign a pledge to join the boycott. The website will provide information on how to eat a more healthy diet, including some easy-to-make lunch alternatives.

As well, students supporting the campaign can share experiences on the Stick It Facebook page and using the Twitter hashtag, #stickit.

“It’s about telling students that we shouldn’t be settling for that,” Kourosh Houshmand, in Grade 12 at Earl Haig Secondary School in Toronto, says to describe the campaign.

“You have options and here are your options.”

Houshmand is a vice-president of the Ontario Student Trustees Association, the collective for students who sit as student representatives on school boards across the province.

The idea for the campaign grew out of a speech the association members heard last May at their annual meeting.

They needed a last-minute speaker and turned to Grant Gordon, an advertising executive who ran last spring for the Liberal Party in the federal riding left empty by the death of former NDP leader Jack Layton. (Gordon lost to NDP candidate Craig Scott.)

Gordon’s firm, Key Gordon Communications, styles itself as an ethical agency. (Its logo is “Branding the good guys.”) He had been noodling around with the notion of a fast-food boycott and raised the idea with the students. He also showed them the logo, which his firm had designed.

It was a galvanizing encounter, giving student leaders who had been keen to tackle the issue in a way to brand fast-food as uncool.

Gordon donated the logo to the campaign, and he is serving as an adviser. His firm also designed some pull-no-punches posters. One tells kids a chemical found in caulking, Silly Putty and shampoo is used in the preparation french fries sold by a fast food giant. Another says simply “Eat Fast, Die Young.”

“I know some in the media will say the logo’s a bit obscene, but what’s truly obscene is the amount of salt, sugar and fat fast food companies are feeding students,” Gordon insists.

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an Ottawa-based weight loss expert, is also an adviser for the campaign. While he applauds the initiative, Freedhoff laments the fact they have to take this kind of action.

“It speaks so cogently to the fact that we as a society, we’re doing nothing. And it’s up to grass-roots types of programs like Stick It To Fast Food to actually have kids making healthier choices in schools,” says Freedhoff, who is the medical director of Ottawa’s Bariatric Medical Institute.

The Stick It launch comes in a week when the Ontario Medical Association went public with a related effort, an assault on obesity.

Among the measures the doctors’ organization is promoting is a move to target junk food with the weapons that were successful in the fight against smoking — things like higher taxes and requiring manufacturers or fast food restaurants to package high-calorie, low-nutritional-value foods with graphic images warning of the health consequences of obesity.

Freedhoff sees the tie in, and says both campaign are evidence of government inaction.

“Already in high school they recognize that our government is failing them in actually providing them with the building blocks of health that they need to move forward,” he says with vehemence.

“Unfortunately in a huge percentage of cases the food that is being served to kids in our schools is the same food that they’re taught in their classes they should avoid. And it’s a real irony that we serve kids the exact same garbage we tell them not to eat.”

How hard will it be to convince kids to bring healthy lunches to school and pass up fries, sugary soft drinks and pizza slices?

Zafari says he used to eat fast food four or five times a week but has changed his eating habits. He’s hopeful his peers will follow suit.

“It will be tough to get 100 per cent of students on board,” he admits. “But we think a good majority care about what they’re eating and would love to take an initiative against these fast food places that only care about their profits.”

—Helen Branswell