New Study: Parents Support Restrictions on The Marketing of Food to Kids

I’m catching up on news items from last week and wanted to share an important new study from The Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity regarding how parents view food industry marketing practices targeted toward their children, a study which, according to the Rudd Center, is the first of its kind.

Surveying 2,454 parents with children aged 2 to 17, the Rudd Center found that:

Parents were as concerned about junk food marketing to children as they were about alcohol and tobacco use in the media. The surveyed parents were highly aware of the “pester power” of food marketing and its effects on their children’s food preferences.

Photo credit: Yale Rudd Center

The report also found relatively high parental support for a variety of policies to promote healthier eating among children, including some restrictions on the advertising of food to kids.  Specifically, the report found that:

The majority of parents surveyed . . . endorsed policies to restrict food marketing to children, with highest support for prohibiting advertising on school buses (69%) and requiring companies to fund advertising for healthy and unhealthy foods equally (68%). Parents also approved of regulations to limit specific types of unhealthy food marketing to children under 12, including advertising/sponsorships in schools (65%), mobile marketing (65%), TV commercials (63%), viral marketing (62%), and internet advertising (61%).

There is much more to be learned from this groundbreaking study, including the environmental factors parents cite most often as obstacles to healthy eating and analyses of the responses along ethnic and political lines.  The entire report is found here.

Given that food industry self-regulation in this area has been almost comically weak, and given how hard (and successfully) the industry lobbied last year against purely voluntary federal advertising guidelines, it’s clear that only political pressure from consumers and parents will bring about real reforms.  In quantifying parents’ views about these issues for the first time, the Rudd Center brings us a step closer to making those reforms a reality.

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As the Dust Settles, A Follow-Up to Yesterday’s House GOP Post

Well, I feel like an irresponsible blogger this morning.

Yesterday I wrote an impassioned post about efforts by House Republicans to gut the funding for several pieces of legislation that I personally value, including the new school food regulations, the new food safety law and the new voluntary guidelines for marketing junk food to children, along with funding for food assistance programs like WIC.

Believe it or not, I wrote that long post in about thirty minutes; one reason why I’m able to publish on TLT five days a week, and often multiple times daily, is because I’m a fast writer — a necessary survival skill from my days as a New York City lawyer, I guess.  But in my haste to get the post done, my normally (I hope) measured tone went right out the window.  “WTF” and “ass-backwards” aren’t in my usual vocabulary, as regular readers know, and in retrospect I really wish I’d sat on that post for a little bit until I cooled off.

Worse than that, though, is that I hit “publish” and then disappeared for the day, unable to moderate comments due to stuff going on in my kids’ lives (today is the last day of school – if you’re a parent, you know that means:  end-of-year activities to attend and last minute errands to run.)  And I feel the comments section really could’ve used a some moderation yesterday, as some of the replies started getting quite heated and personal.

It’s hard to sum up all the comments that came in, many of them paragraphs long, but I think it’s safe to say that the main divide between readers (as is the case in our national political debate) is the always vexing question of how much government is too much, as well as the role of personal responsibility in making food choices for ourselves and our kids.

On the topic of food assistance in particular, some readers wrote in to share how programs like WIC had helped their families in times of need and resented the implication that taking advantage of this federal aid was a personal failing.  Reader Michael wrote:

. . . .WIC (and other things that help people) should not be cut. Should they maybe make it hard to get it, idk. Maybe its to hard to get. Either way without WIC my brother (and family) would be a lot less healthy. Because UN-healthy food is cheap. However because we had WIC, and Food Stamps we could eat healthier.

But other readers, like AlphaSmith, described how they’d been able to raise families on very little income without resorting to such assistance:

Caring for and feeding one’s own children requires very little money. I know, I have six kids. I have stayed at home with them (and fed them) since back in the day when we made about $1000 per month AND were paying for graduate school.

I would stand in line with my minimal cash and my coupons and rebates with dry beans, powdered milk, tough cheap meats to slow cook, ramen (oh, yes!), and on-sale produce. I’d watch the parents in front of me check out with WIC and food stamps. They had processed high-sugar breakfast cereals (heaven forbid they should actually cook some oatmeal), gallons of fresh milk (because powdered is “icky” and they won’t eat it), cheese (that was a luxury we couldn’t afford), frozen convenience foods, juice (which is much less healthy than fruit and expensive relative to nutrients), and soda, candy, donuts, cookies, cracker, ice cream and other treats we couldn’t possibly afford. Even food gift baskets!

I think we’d all agree that fraud and waste exist in such programs and need to be eliminated to the extent possible, but I personally came out where reader Korey did.  Korey asked us to step out of our own shoes and remember that some people simply lack the skills and knowledge to feed a family well, and that deficit is where the real problem lies:

. . . . I think it’s dangerously simplistic to assert that cutting food assistance programs or repealing food-related legislation will force people to take personal responsibility for feeding their children nutritious food.  . . . . What about parents who don’t have enough education to read and understand nutritional data? How can parents make good decisions if they don’t have the information literacy skills to recognize the processed food industry’s aggressive and deceptive marketing tactics? How can parents who’ve never learned to cook make healthy meals from scratch? Without the knowledge to manage personal finances, how can parents devise ways to make their food dollars stretch? True, maybe some parents are just lazy and don’t care what their children eat, but I think we have to imagine circumstances beyond our own and acknowledge that many people face real obstacles and may need assistance to get to the point of being able to take personal responsibility. The playing field is not at all level. Maybe I’m too idealistic, but what I’d like to see are more programs that help parents acquire these types of skills. Maybe then food legislation and assistance programs would seem less necessary.

Some comments, like that of Vicki The Lunch Lady got into the nitty gritty of the school food regulations, and I’m in the process of responding to those comments individually on yesterday’s post.  (Vicki – my reply to you is up now.)

And some readers seemed to object less to the existence of certain federal programs than to their inept execution.  For example, reader Kristi feels the FDA is failing its duties by, for example, adversely affecting small farmers via the food safety law, or by approving GMOs.  She also writes:

The healthy school lunch bill was a joke. It still promotes too many US subsidized grains and CAFO low fat milk, low fat foods in general, and no real food. . . .  It was only a tiptoe forward and made things seem better without actually improving anything.

On this last point, I personally feel we can’t make the perfect the enemy of the good.  There was no reason to think the legislative process, which has never been anything but messy and marked by often troubling compromises, was going to work differently this time around, but I do feel that the new school food regulations are a net gain.  But can we continue to improve up them?  Absolutely.

I want to end by thanking the readers who took the time to write in yesterday, all of you clearly putting a lot of time and thought into your comments.  Without your participation, TLT would just be a sounding board for my own views, which would make for quite a dull read.  Moreover, your absence would be a personal loss because I learn so much from each and every person who writes in.

I know it got a little heated yesterday but that just means we feel passionately about these issues, and that’s only to the good, right?



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House GOP Wants to Gut New School Food Improvements, Food Safety and Children’s Advertising Guidelines

Although regular readers of TLT may have a sense of my liberal politics, I generally try to keep this forum neutral and nonpartisan.  (Except when I’m talking about Rush Limbaugh.  Or the Heritage Foundation.  Or conservative pundits who want to end the school lunch program and let poor kids fend for themselves.  Or right wing crazies who demonize Michelle Obama for her Let’s Move! initiative.  OK, maybe I’m not so good at hiding my biases.)

But this morning it took all of my self control not to just title this post “OMG, GOP – WTF????”

The Associated Press reports that late Tuesday, the House Appropriations Committee approved an agriculture appropriations bill which would essentially gut all of the recent, hard-won legislative victories to improve the health of Americans, especially children.

Remember how hard it was to get the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act passed, the law that will for the first time in fifteen years meaningfully improve the nutritional quality of school food?  Sorry, says the House GOP.  Too costly to implement, not to mention that Representatives from potato-growing states aren’t pleased with the fact that french fries and tater tots can no longer stand in as the daily vegetable on school lunch trays.

And remember the recent, landmark inter-agency effort to issue voluntary guidelines on the marketing of junk food to kids? Nanny-state overreaching! says the GOP.  The AP quotes a spokesman for the Appropriations Committee’s agriculture subcommittee, Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga):

“Our concern is those voluntary guidelines are back-door regulation,” he said, deploring the fact that kids can watch shows that depict sex and drugs on MTV, but “you cannot see an advertisement for Tony the Tiger during the commercial break.”

But as the always-incisive Melanie Warner writes, the real reason the packaged food industry is fighting tooth and nail against those new guidelines is because, lo and behold, they might actually work, as compared to the current, utterly toothless self-regulatory scheme:

. . . the proposed rules are so good (from a health standpoint, anyway) that food manufacturers can’t easily reformulate their products in order to make them OK to pitch at kids. The FTC, which is spearheading the crackdown, doesn’t want to admit this, but the guidelines are actually a blueprint for a world where most highly processed fare isn’t marketed to kids at all.

Meanwhile, as we’re watching people falling ill and dying in unprecedented numbers in Germany from an E Coli outbreak, what does the House GOP want to do to the FDA?   Cut almost 12% of the the agency’s budget, seriously undermining its ability to implement the Obama administration’s newly passed food safety rules.

And at a time when over 17 million American children are growing up in food-insecure households, the House GOP proposes a cut of “about $650 million — or 10 percent — from the Women, Infants and Children program that feeds and educates mothers and their children.”

As Tom Laskawy writes on Grist, the House GOP’s moves are more than just political grandstanding; rather, the situation is “deadly serious”:

On the one hand, this is just the House, which, in the iron grip of the Tea Party, is spitting out one destructive piece of legislation after another. The Democrat-controlled Senate will have no interest in much of what the House disgorges. But the two houses of Congress must ultimately agree on spending legislation. The question is how the houses can meaningfully meet when one side has gone so far afield.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I may be a liberal, but I understand the need for budgetary constraints and the desire for fiscal responsibility.  It’s just that these proposed spending cuts are, pardon my French, utterly ass-backward.

For example, according to this report, the Congressional Budget office estimates that the FDA will need $1.4 billion to implement the food safety law, but a recent Pew Trusts report estimates that the annual health-related costs of food-borne illnesses is somewhere between $75 and $150 billion.  Similarly, the GOP’s own estimates of the costs of requiring more fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy in school meals is $7 billion over five years, but the direct cost of obesity-related diseases in this country is pegged at $147 million (putting aside the other benefits of feeding children well, apart from curbing obesity.)  And when it comes to cuts in food assistance programs, do we really need to discuss the long term societal costs of letting children going hungry, let alone the morality of doing so?

So I guess the jig is up — my bleeding heart liberal biases are now on full display.

But I’m curious to hear from politically conservative TLT readers — presumably you support many of the legislative programs discussed above or you’d be unlikely to follow this blog.  What do you think of the House GOP’s latest move?  Let me know in a comment below.

[Ed Update: You can read a summary of comments and my thoughts in response here: “As the Dust Settles, A Follow-Up to Yesterday’s House GOP Post“]


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