For lead researcher Sue Holtby, M.P.H., of the Public Health Institute, the fast food consumption numbers are troubling because of "what it indicates for the rest of the family."
"For this age group, it's probably the whole family that's eating it," Holtby said in a phone interview. "It's fast, cheap and kids like the taste of it. Unfortunately, it sets you to want more of that kind of taste, which can lead to overweight."
However, food patterns varied across ethnic groups: 70% of Latino kids in the survey had eaten one fast food meal last week, but when factoring in all ethnicities, that number dropped to 60% -- showing that Latino kids are outpacing kids of other ethnicities in fast food consumption. Meanwhile, 40% of Asian children ate at least five fruits or vegetables the previous day, in contrast to 56% among all ethnic groups.
Because children ages 2-5 do not have their own transportation or money, the parents or the caregivers are the ones obtaining the fast food meals for them and deciding how much produce they're eating. Indeed, parents admitted as much during the phone surveys. However, like fast food or vegetable consumption, levels of perceived influence varied across ethnicities as well.
While 90.7% of white parents and 93.3% of African American parents said they had "a lot" of influence over their children's diets, only 78.1% of Latino parents and 70.9% of Asian parents reported the same. Also, in Spanish-speaking homes, parents said they felt they had even less influence, which is in line with a separate finding that more than 84% of all food and beverages commercials on Spanish-language television shows for children were for unhealthy foods like candy, soda and fries, compared to 72.5% of ads on English-language shows.
While the numbers are concerning, the policy brief also points out that only 10% of California's 2-to-5-year-old population is either overweight or obese, as opposed to 25% nationwide. And the state's arguably successful attempts to limit the soda industry do point to a possible plan of action against fast food restaurants. For example, soda consumption among young children has steadily decreased in California across all income levels, according to the policy brief; in 2009, only 16% of young children had consumed soda the previous day. In 2003, that number was 40.4%.
As the brief notes, California takes one of the most aggressive stances against the soda industry. California mandates that daycares serve only low-fat or nonfat milk to toddlers, limit juice and make clean water available. In 2003, the state also became the first in the nation to ban soda sales in elementary schools, and it spread to high schools between 2005 and 2009.
"The reason school foods are so important is because kids spend so much time there," said Juliet Sims, M.P.H., a program manager with the Prevention Institute, a non-profit public health organization. "Children on average get 30-5-% of their calories at school."
Sims was not involved in the survey, but reviewed the policy brief and praised the study for pointing out that different groups of children are being disproportionately impacted by unhealthy foods. She also said that more research needs to be done, especially when it comes to parents' perception over their impact on children's diets.
Holtby agrees. She is looking into convening focus groups to explore the reasons parents feel more or less influence over their family's diets, and whether or not their perception matches up with what's actually happening at the table. However, for now, Holtby says that the survey serves as a wake-up call for parents to examine what they are really putting in front of their toddlers and young children.
"What we're trying to point out is that it's a very young age for kids to be eating fast food regularly," Holtby concluded. "When you're developing a kid's eating habits and you have so much control, it seems like its a good time to start off with healthy eating habits and just have a fast food meal, once in a while, not every week."
The policy brief is a collaboration between UCLA and the Public Health Institute and was funded by First 5 California, a state initiative focused on improving the health and education of California residents aged five and under. The analysis is based on telephone surveys of 2,600 to 3,400 families in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009, the largest state health survey in the nation.