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Monday, September 26, 2016

Pokémon GO vs Michelle Obama: The Fight Against Childhood Obesity

Entrepreneurs vs Central Planners: Who are making kids healthier?

Entrepreneurs are far better at fixing problems than the government.

Need proof? Let’s look at the childhood obesity problem in the United States. We have Michelle Obama with regulations on one side, and the entrepreneurs at Nintendo with Pokémon GO on the other. Who is making kids healthier? Who’s costing taxpayers more? Who’s creating more value?

Taxes for Vegetables

Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative was started in 2011, and was designed to help kids up their fitness and lose the twinkies. However, since its inception, the program has cost taxpayers billions, and it’s had a host of unintended consequences. Sure, healthier school lunches sound nice, but the new rules and regulations around school lunches, which were championed by Obama, have taken a toll on school budgets.

In 2014, school lunch participation was down by 1.4 million students from 2012, when the new nutritional guidelines were implemented.

In 2012, the USDA estimated that the new lunch rules would increase the production cost of lunches by $3.2 billion within the first five years of taking effect – not to mention the administrative nightmare of trying to decipher and comply with the 81-page mandate.

But let’s put the cost increase aside for a moment. After all, what’s another $3.2 billion when the country is almost $20 trillion in debt? If students were actually happier and healthier, maybe the costs could be justified.

So are they happier? No. Students are in fact so unhappy with their lunches that #ThanksMichelleObama is a popular hashtag students attach to pictures of their small, strange, grotesque meals. On top of that, many schools report an increase in food waste and waste management costs. One study even showed the new rules increased food waste by 100%. So while kids may have some more fruits and veggies on their plates, it seems like those vitamins and minerals will only nourish the dumpster. Some students are opting out of buying lunch altogether. In 2014, school lunch participation was down by 1.4 million students from 2012, when the new nutritional guidelines were implemented.

Meanwhile, obesity rates in every childhood age group have continued to rise despite all of the regulations, money, and good intentions that the government continues to throw at the problem – with one exception. The rate of childhood obesity for children between the ages of two and five has decreased since Obama’s Let’s Move initiative got off the ground. However, this decline started back in 2003, well before Obama had even entered the White House. Not to mention, these children are the least affected age group from the Let’s Move campaign, because they’ve barely entered the school system! That didn’t stop the Let’s Move campaign from taking credit though.

Healthy by Choice, Not Regulation

Let’s contrast this bureaucratic nightmare with Pokémon GO, a massively popular cell phone game started by Nintendo.

Sorry, kids. The government wants you to lose some weight, just not if the process is fun and uses public spaces.

So how does a cell phone game connect to childhood obesity? Well, Pokémon GO isn’t a regular cell phone game. It’s an augmented reality game that requires players to walk around their environment and find Pokémon to catch, in order to gain points and level up. We aren’t just talking a few extra steps. Players are putting some serious miles on their sneakers, and health experts are praising the technology for encouraging physical activity.

Go to any park after school is dismissed, and you will see plenty of kids playing Pokémon GO. The game has become particularly popular with families, many of whom go out on “Poké-walks” together at the kids’ request. While younger children are playing with their parents, older children can often be seen playing in groups, sometimes on skateboards or scooters.

So Pokémon GO is getting kids off the couch, walking around outside for miles, encouraging families to spend more time with each other, and it doesn’t cost taxpayers a dime. Then the government must be happy too, right? Wrong. Various local governments have attempted to ban the game from public spaces. Sorry, kids. The government wants you to lose some weight, just not if the process is fun and uses public spaces.

Private businesses, on the other hand, have embraced the game – some even undergoing renovations to include Pokémon decals and free phone-charging stations. The more people walking around outside, the more potential customers on the inside.

The entrepreneurs at Nintendo did not sit around coming up with clever plans to solve childhood obesity. They did not ask themselves, “How can we make kids healthier?” They asked themselves, “How can we create an awesome game that makes money?” And that isn’t a bad question! In fact, it is the key to the game’s success. Nintendo isn’t allowed to force people to download their game, get outside, and exercise. They have to create an amazing product that people freely choose to play. As a result, they have made millions of dollars, without costing taxpayers anything.

Contrast this to the orders, meal-plans, schedules, dictates, rules, and regulations that came with the “Let’s Move” initiative. Bad results, bad food, and billions wasted. There’s a clear winner here.

  • Julia Patterson is currently dabbling in graphic design and marketing while handling operations for the Patterson in Pursuit podcast. She interned with The Foundation for Economic Education in 2013.