Now that the weather is warm, every day I pick up my kindergartner from school to the sound of the ice cream truck parked within a few feet of the dismissal area. By the time we pass the truck, the line is 20 kids long and my son is sobbing because I’m the evil mom who won’t let him have ice cream. Our children deserve protection from predatory vendors waiting to capitalize on school-weary appetites. A city ordinance should be enacted to prevent trucks from operating within 300 feet of any school building, park, or playground.
All day in school, my son’s teachers and administrators promote a healthy diet, encouraging him to eat fruits and vegetables, and limiting his exposure to high-sugar, high-fat snack foods. Then, when he is at his most vulnerable — tired and hungry from a long day of learning — he is bombarded with the sound and sights of an ice cream truck and all his friends enjoying their sweet treats. The placement of the food truck is entirely inconsistent with our city’s strong history of progressive work to promote health and wellness for all and especially for our children.
The School District of Philadelphia has made significant efforts to promote community health, including a district-wide Wellness Policy to help students be “fit, healthy, and ready to learn.” All food and beverages offered to students on the campus during the school day are subject to federal guidelines. Typically, there is not a single item on an ice cream truck’s menu that meets these standards. Yet every day the truck is parked within five feet of the school’s blacktop, ready to serve the hungry, tired masses walking home.
Our district’s Wellness Policy was implemented to protect our children and promote their health and well-being. Philadelphia has been a progressive leader in the fight against childhood obesity. Our School District banned soda and sugar-sweetened beverages 14 years ago. Its forward-thinking Wellness Policy was implemented soon after supporting, among other changes, a switch to low-fat milk and removal of deep fryers from school kitchens. These changes, alongside many others promoted by Get Healthy Philly, have contributed to a reduction in school-age obesity rates in Philadelphia. This is good news. Small changes are adding up to a big impact on our community’s health. Yet, 1 in 5 children in our city are still obese and at risk for the negative health consequences associated with childhood obesity. There is more work to be done, and we need to build upon the momentum of our successful public and private efforts.
Food trucks are increasingly popular in America and particularly in Philadelphia. The ice cream truck is one of the earliest forms of automotive-based food delivery and arguably one of the most enjoyable. It’s a delightful part of childhood to squeal with anticipation at the siren song of an ice cream truck on a hot summer day. But an ice cream truck parked outside a school at dismissal time is taking advantage of families and children when they are least prepared to defend against it. Its location suggests the School District endorses its presence, in opposition to its own Wellness Policy. The ice cream truck is often parked right next to activities sponsored by my school to promote good health—such as the Vetri Mobile Teaching Kitchen and Share Farm Stand. How are children and families to know the difference between the two? No matter how good the pesto is at the Vetri Stand, the ice cream truck will win the kids’ attention every time. If the ice cream truck was simply a block or two away, it would not appear to be school-sponsored. Furthermore, it would allow parents and children the choice to walk past the truck or not on their way home.
I will happily buy my son (and myself!) the occasional ice cream treat. But I also want to protect him from the regular, seemingly school-sanctioned temptation that happens every day at dismissal. Other cities have ordinances to protect their children by prohibiting certain vendors from selling too close to schools and public spaces. It’s time Philadelphia does the same and asks the trucks to move around the corner.
Amy Janke is an associate professor of psychology and health policy at the University of the Sciences.