Fooducate thinks so.
Blogger Hemi Weingarten has a short but incisive post today critiquing the First Lady’s much anticipated keynote address at yesterday’s Partnership for a Healthier America inaugural summit. Weingarten questions why Mrs. Obama focused almost exclusively on the need for increased physical exercise when, as Weingarten persuasively argues, it’s really our children’s food environment — driven by powerful corporate interests — underlying the obesity crisis. He writes: “. . . it seems that she has realized the limits of her power to change the behavior of companies that manufacture sugary beverages, sugar laden cereals, and other kiddie delights.”
I have no doubt that this reasoning is exactly what motivated Mrs. Obama to stay mum about food in her speech. Let’s recap just a few recent battles on the childhood obesity front in which the food industry emerged as the clear winner:
- As I’ve reported about extensively in the past, federal efforts to rein in corporate advertising of junk food to children have been a dismal failure. After a federal inter-agency working group (FTC, CDC, FDA and USDA) came up with purely voluntary (!) guidelines to prevent industry from pitching the worst foods to kids, Big Food took a two-pronged approach to fight back. It lobbied the House GOP to effectively scotch the effort by including a provision in the FTC’s budget ordering the government “to study the potential costs and impacts of the guidelines before implementing them,” with the obvious hope that the guidelines will never re-emerge to see the light of day. Industry also hastily announced it was improving its own voluntary guidelines (and I once showed you what a joke the old guidelines were) by applying a uniform nutritional standard on all participating companies instead of letting each come up with its own standard. But before you get excited about that idea, here are just a few of the foods that can still be freely advertised to kids under these “new and improved” uniform guidelines.
- More recently, Congress made clear that it’s far more concerned with placating the manufacturers of frozen pizza and the growers of potatoes than it is with improving the health of school children, when it refused to fund stricter school food nutrition regulations that would adversely affect these well-funded interests. As a result, a tray of pizza and tater tots needs no other vegetable to qualify for federal reimbursement, flouting the very Institute of Medicine recommendations USDA was supposed to follow in coming up with the new rules.
- And as recently as yesterday, fast food behemoth McDonald’s showed how easily and cleverly it could evade a hard-fought ordinance in San Francisco banning free toys in unhealthy kids’ meals. Rather than improve the nutritional profile of its Happy Meals (the intent of the ban), effective today San Francisco franchisees will simply charge parents a token dime for the toy and continue with business as usual. The fast food company may even garner some positive PR by donating all those dimes to the construction of a new Ronald McDonald House. Brilliant.
Mrs. Obama has been one of our most outspoken advocates for improving children’s health and she and her Let’s Move! initiative have made some real headway. The First Lady actively championed the passage of last year’s Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act, which (despite any weakening by Congress) is still a clear net gain in terms of improving the quality of and access to school food around the country. She’s drawn national attention to gardening, cooking and the importance of family meals. She’s worked with foundations and corporations to get more salad bars into schools. When she addressed the National Restaurant Association last year she scolded them about their dismal children’s menu offerings (a cause near to my heart) and industry responded by making notable (if not perfect) improvements. Corporations and other entities, from Wal-Mart to the YMCA, have made positive changes at her behest (even if for entirely cynical reasons). (More Let’s Move! accomplishments summarized here.)
And let’s not forget that she’s withstood her share of right wing flak for even taking on the obesity issue in the first place.
But Mrs. Obama’s omission of any real discussion of food in yesterday’s PHA speech was still notable, as was her silence in the aftermath of the pizza disgrace. Both incidents raise the question of what we can realistically expect from any First Lady taking up this particular cause. Indeed, there have always been vocal criticisms of all of her efforts, from arguments that they don’t go far enough to concern that Mrs. Obama is inadvertently giving PR cover to America’s worst corporate actors.
But TLT readers know that I am, at bottom, a pragmatist; I still would much rather have a First Lady in my corner than not, even if she’s sometimes an imperfect advocate. My hope is that Mrs. Obama is consciously muting her message as the presidential election cycle heats up and that we’ll see a more full-throated approach from her after after the election is over (assuming she’s still in the East Wing). But Weingarten’s overall point in his Fooducate post today remains critically important:
It’s much easier to get everyone to rally around MORE of something (in this case exercise) than convincing corporations to forfeit revenue streams by selling LESS junk food.
Until we realize this simple truth, childhood obesity will not disappear.
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