Tevlin: You, kid in the park, step away from the hot cheese ...

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 2, 2012 - 10:13 PM

Psst. Hey kid. You, over there by the basketball hoop. You want some nachos?

Kid: Sure, mister.

You want some nice melted cheese with those nachos?

Kid: Sure, mister. Gee, you're a nice guy.

No, kid, no I'm not. I'm the park food police and you can't have any cheese because it makes you fat. How about a whole wheat pretzel?

Kid: Yuck! I'm going home to stuff my face and play video games. This park stinks!

This touching scenario could be coming to a Minneapolis park near you if new policies being developed by Park and Recreation staffers are enacted. The proposals were discussed at the last park board meeting May 16, but were kicked back for revision when some feared that the measures might be seen as an overreach by government.

The policies wouldn't apply to private entities such as Tin Fish or Sea Salt, restaurants inside city parks. But they would include events and activities that serve tens of thousands of kids each year.

Among the initial proposals: All pizza crust and pretzels would have to be whole wheat. No melted cheese for chips or pretzels. Brownies and other treats would need to be no larger than 2 inches by 2 inches (apparently verified by the Baked Goods Measurement Compliance Officer). Juice servings would be limited to 8 ounces. Only lean meats would be allowed, which means no high-fat hamburgers and no hot dogs. Let me repeat that: no hot dogs.

In parks.

What in the name of Leslie Knope?

Knope is the television character in the series, "Parks and Recreation," and as the fictional head of the parks department of Pawnee, Indiana, she's known to support a litany of well-intended but often crackpot ideas to "challenge the norm."

I was prepared to joke that this actual proposal seems like something that might be on the show, until I looked it up and found that Knope's crusades indeed include "one park ranger for every 10,000 raccoons," "start talking with Cuba," and, you guessed it, "lowering the obesity level."

Getting kids to eat healthy is great. I'm certainly not one of those people who scream that the government should not play a role in encouraging good behaviors and discouraging bad.

But some people think measuring brownies and mandating whole wheat goes beyond simply offering healthy alternatives like fruit and vegetables. And it's guaranteed to rile up the don't-tread-on-me crowd that's already paranoid that government will soon be force-feeding them spelt.

Park Board Commissioner Jon Olson, who represents the North Side, is one person who thinks the rules are a bit much. He's worried such tactics would backfire and peg Minneapolis as a "no-fun" city.

"I think the board agreed with the majority of the things the staff wanted to do," said Olson. "But I think we have to scale it back a little and take another look at it. I think we need to get kids engaged a little first instead of turning them off."

After all, the kids are not held captive at park events, and Olson is concerned that if they are so spooked by healthy food they'll ditch the active games for a virtual reality and a bag of Doritos at home.

"That's my concern, that we're going to push kids away," said Olson. "We need to kind of teach them to chose healthy food, not push it on them."

Sara Ackmann, manager of program and facilities, said critics are not giving kids enough credit for liking healthy food, and said the school system is more restrictive than what's being proposed for the parks.

Commissioner Scott Vreeland said perhaps shooting for a percentage of whole grains to be included in park food would get around the "nobody likes whole wheat pizza" issue. Vreeland said that "everyone is an expert in food in a very personal way, and that makes these discussions difficult."

"As a provider of services to children, it is our job to promote health, physical activity, and offer healthy food," Vreeland said. "I think it is also helpful to focus on a procurement policy; we are not telling other people what to do, we are establishing rules of what we are buying. "A good policy is about both science and social marketing," said Vreeland.

I think a less menacing policy could work, while accomplishing another of television commissioner Knope's goals, to "Leave a lasting impression on visitors."

In my opinion, however, there's no better way to do that than a little melted cheese.

If it still doesn't work, there is one more Knope policy that will. "Require flattering mirrors in public restrooms."

jtevlin@startribune.com 612-673-1702

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