On every school day, Bryan Alexis faces a mob.
Assisting at his Mexico City middle school’s food store, he doles out change and food to his fellow students during their break. But since January, they’ve been hounding him with the same questions.
They hate the smaller bags of cookies and powder-covered, junky snacks – the new portions.
“They ask for the biggest size,” said Alexis, 15. “They can’t buy it. But that’s what they’re asking for.”
It’s a new era, Alexis often must assert. “These are the rules the school sent and we can’t do anything about it,” he tells his peers.
The “rules” are the government’s new nutritional guidelines, which went into effect in January. They’re part of a fresh push in Mexico to combat the country’s obesity problems, especially amongst its youngest citizens.
The guidelines call for smaller servings with adjusted calorie levels, though kids can still purchase some familiar Mexican junk-food brands. Preschool and elementary school students are only allowed water, but middle school students can buy a wider range of pre-determined sweet beverages, including juices and diet soda.
In Mexico, 31 percent of children between 5 through 17 years old are considered overweight or obese, according to a 2010 report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). But Mexican children still fall behind their counterparts in the United States (35 percent), Scotland (35 percent) and Spain (33 percent), to name a few nations.
Among Mexican adults, 30 percent are considered obese and 70 percent overweight, placing them neck-and-neck with the United States as world’s fattest nation, according to OECD stats.
Despite the striking statistics, education officials and teachers alike say they’re just beginning to address weight-related issues.
Jorge Adalberto Vivar Bolio is a 30-year veteran of Mexico City schools and the principal of República Mexicana Middle School, where Alexis attends.
Up until two or three years ago, the educational system didn’t pay much attention to dietary concerns, he said. Now they are aware, but indifference abounds.
“The students don’t really care about lowering their weight,” said Vivar Bolio, adding most parents aren’t terribly concerned either.
Better luck next year, perhaps? The restrictions become progressively more intense during three consecutive phases – the first occurring now, and the next two beginning in August 2011 and 2012, respectively.
“Whenever there’s a change, there’s resistance. In these stages of gradual adjustment, obviously we are passing and moving toward a more pure and careful state,” said Guillermo Ayala Alvarez, an education official in charge of monitoring whether Mexico City schools are following the guidelines.
It’s clear the obesity issue is garnering more attention. During the last two weeks of April, Mexico City school leaders ran a program for some 30,000 kids with an “interactive” show about health and nutrition, along with various classes using jump ropes, hoops and other conditioning materials in a large northern park.
And in March, Mexico’s health secretary, José Ángel Córdova Villalobos, spoke out against junk food companies marketing to kids, saying he would push new regulations limiting advertisements.
But despite advancements, advocates like Xaviera Cabada believe the government should be demanding more.
In May 2010, the secretariats of health and public education presented stringent nutritional guidelines with less added sweeteners and saturated fat, she said. In the following months, food manufacturers were able to lobby an independent Mexican regulatory body.
By the time official guidelines came out in August, they had radically changed, said Cabada, who works for the Mexican watchdog group The Power of the Consumer.
“It’s really sad because, in the end, the guidelines that remained were almost a joke,” she said. “They took out so many criteria.”
In each school, a committee composed of parents and school employees is supposed to make sure the food’s up to code.
Elementary school principal Miriam Yamile Bobadilla Velasco said about five parents belong to her school’s committee – and a parent stops by roughly once a month, though they’re welcome to come by at any time, if they have concerns.
On one afternoon that Fox News Latino visited her school, República Italiana Elementary, the students were eating small, breaded pieces of fish cooked on a griddle, a broth with beans and pasta, sides of mashed potatoes and tortillas and papaya for dessert. The rest of the week’s menu looked roughly similar with a protein and seasonal fruit.
A group of 10 and 11-year-old kids said they missed pizza, French fries, lime and strawberry popsicles, marzipan and thicker stacks of tortillas. But they understood the basic point of the guidelines:
“They are protecting us from the bad things,” said Jessica Jocelyn Lortez Marcelo, 11.
With stands of greasy tacos and junk food lining many Mexico City streets, those “bad things” include obesity, diabetes, hypertension – all issues that often plague the overweight.
But the battle begins before students arrive to class, said principal Vivar Bolio. Many parents give their kids 20 pesos to buy breakfast while heading to school. Some students show up with traditional Mexican morning treats like tamales or atole, a maize-based drink. But others walk through the doors with coffee and “Doritos – these kinds of things.”
“We tell them not to bring them, not to eat them – but since it’s very practical, they consume it,” he said.
When it comes to the guidelines, “they’re not adapting easily,” he said. “The change isn’t going to happen immediately.”
Ruth Samuelson is a freelance writer living in Mexico City. She can be reached at email@example.com.