Will the Celebrity “FNV” Campaign Be Co-Opted by Big Food?

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 6.37.54 AMLast week I applauded the new, celebrity-filled “FNV” campaign which is designed to promote greater fruit and vegetable consumption (“Celebrities Marketing Vegetables to My Kids? Bring. It. On.”)  The marketing campaign is being launched by the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA), the nonprofit arm of the First Lady’s Let’s Move! initiative, and it was born out of a 2014 New York Times piece in which writer Michael Moss asked an ad agency to create a junk-food-style ad campaign for broccoli.  (Here’s the teaser video for the FNV campaign.)

My post sparked a Twitter debate in which some of my colleagues expressed serious concern about the FNV campaign, primarily for two reasons.  The first relates to advertising to children, and tomorrow Casey Hinds (U.S. Healthy Kids) will have a post in Beyond Chron explaining why she objects to FNV’s use of celebrities to encourage kids to eat even healthy foods like fruits and vegetables.  The next day, Wednesday, Beyond Chron will publish my rebuttal to Casey’s post on that topic.

So putting aside momentarily the issue of advertising to kids, the other main objection voiced in the debate was that the FNV campaign will likely be co-opted by the food industry and used to promote less-than-healthful products like fruit juice and highly processed fruit and vegetable foods.  And we do know from bitter experience that the food industry can be quite self-serving in setting its own parameters for what constitutes a “healthy” food or beverage (see, e.g., my 2011 post “Fox Guards Henhouse: Industry’s ‘Self-Regulation’ of Children’s Food Advertising.”)

Michael Moss, who was following our Twitter debate, summed up that aspect of our conversation this way:

moss tweet

I realized during our Twitter discussion that none of us actually had the requisite facts to answer that question.  So last week I contacted the Partnership for a Healthier America for more information.  Here’s what I learned:

FNV Ads Won’t Directly Promote Brands, and Participating Brands Won’t Use Celebrities

Even though the FNV campaign is underwritten in part by food companies, such as the Bolthouse Farms division of Campbell’s, PHA’s spokesperson assured me that the ads will be “focused on increased consumption and sales of fruits and vegetables, not on individual brands.”  So, apparently, we will not see ads with Nick Jonas or Kristen Bell holding up a bag of Bolthouse Farms seasoned carrots, and instead they will promote only generic fruits and vegetables.

That said, I was told that:

supporting organizations may feature FNV in their [advertising] and co-branded activations may occur (i.e. in-store tastings of branded commodities with FNV logo and message present). Regardless, supporting organizations can only use the FNV brand with prior PHA approval.

So does this mean that Campbell’s could put the likeness of Nick Jonas on the packaging for its Bolthouse Farms carrots?  In a follow-up answer, I was told, “At this time, [sponsoring companies are] restricted to use of the FNV logo and messages.”

I should note here that even if the FNV campaign were promoting branded products, or if at some future date branded products are allowed to use celebrity likenesses, I would still be fine with that.  In that regard I differ from food policy experts like Marion Nestle who, writing last week in Food Politics, expressed some overall discomfort with the FNV campaign, noting that “Marketing is not education. Education is about imparting knowledge and promoting wisdom and critical thinking. Marketing is about creating demand for a product.”

But unfortunately we don’t live in a world of quiet, thoughtful analysis.  We live in a world in which we are all bombarded by powerfully influential ad messages, to the tune of billions of dollars a year, and these ads almost invariably entice us to eat the least healthful foods and beverages.  We are paying a stiff price for that unfettered industry influence, in terms of the degradation of the American diet and the rise in obesity and related diseases.  Since that industry megaphone will never be silenced, in my view, counter-marketing for healthful foods is not only acceptable but urgently needed.

My only (previously expressed) caveat is that when it comes to children, I would want to limit that marketing to “minimally processed fruits and vegetables.”  But this leads us to the crux of our Twitter debate: just how will PHA define “fruits and vegetables” for the purposes of the FNV campaign?

The FNV Will Not Promote Highly Processed Fruit and Vegetable Foods

To get the answer to that critical question, I asked the PHA spokesperson:

Will the campaign promote or depict fruits and vegetables in processed form (such as applesauce, fruit roll-ups, canned fruit or vegetables) or will it only show fruits and vegetables in their natural state?  If the former, are there any set parameters used by the FNV campaign to decide what processed products may be included in the campaign?

Her answer:

FNV will incorporate all forms of fruit and vegetable products – fresh, frozen, canned, dried – that do not contain excessive calories, added sugar or sweeteners, fat or salt.

While I suppose there’s a bit of wiggle room in “excessive calories,” that ambiguity shouldn’t matter if PHA adheres to the rest of its litmus test.  In other words, once you rule out added sugar, fat and salt (the Holy Trinity of processed food flavor enhancers), you’ve essentially closed the door on highly processed foods being promoted via the FNV campaign.

That is very good news.

There Are No Current Plans to Promote Juice

When I asked if the FNV campaign would promote juice, I was told by the PHA, “Not at this time.”

This answer concerns me. There are many health experts who believe that even 100% fruit juice, due to its lack of fiber and high sugar content, is a driver of obesity, and the last thing Americans need is more sweet beverages in their diet.  I know some of the people behind the FNV campaign are paying attention to our debate on these issues, and I sincerely hope they stick to their current plan of not using the FNV campaign to promote juice.

* * *

I want to thank the PHA for responding so quickly to my questions and I hope this additional information is useful to those of you interested in this campaign.  Tomorrow I’ll share on social media the link to Casey’s anti-FNV post in Beyond Chron and then will share my response on Wednesday.

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Congressman Reintroduces BAKE SALE Act to Gut Healthy School Fundraising

american cupcakeLast September I told you how conservative Texas Congressman Ted Poe introduced the BAKE SALE Act (“the Bringing Awareness and Knowledge to Exempt Schools Against Legislative Encroachment Act”) to gut new federal standards and allow schools to sell junk food to raise funds.  The BAKE SALE Act died with the end of the last legislative session, but a dogged Congressman Poe reintroduced the bill last week.

As I wrote here and on Civil Eats, the BAKE SALE Act and similar state efforts to bring back school junk food fundraising make perfect sense in the short term. Schools want to sell junk food to raise money because (a) it’s a sure-fire seller and (b) slashed state education budgets all too often fail to cover students’ needs.

But in the long term, who will pay the eventual costs of students’ obesity and related diseases?  The very states that failed to adequately fund schools in the first place. Here in Ted Poe’s Texas, for example, we rank a dismal 46th place in per-student spending but our high schoolers are among the most obese in the nation and, by one estimate, obesity will cost Texas employers a stunning $30 billion a year by 2036.  Anyone looking rationally at the math would conclude that it makes more sense to redirect a tiny fraction of the money that will later be spent on obesity-related healthcare toward school funding.

But, of course, this isn’t really about what’s best for kids or for states. This is about political grandstanding.  As we saw earlier this year, Texas’s new Agriculture Commissioner, Sid Miller, made the return of cupcakes and other junk food to schools his first official act in office.  That landed him on national Fox News just a few days later, where he was hailed as a national hero by host Tucker Carlson.  By casting his BAKE SALE Act as the overthrow of the federal “food police,” Ted Poe clearly hopes that he, too, can turn red velvet cupcakes into red meat for his political supporters.

And it’s not a bad strategy.  By the time this generation of students manifests the adverse effects of a steady diet of junk food, both Mr. Miller and Mr. Poe will likely be long out of office, no longer accountable for their cynical exploitation of kids’ health for political gain.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 10,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page, join 5,500 TLT followers on Twitter, or get your “Lunch” delivered right to your email inbox by subscribing to my posts. You can download my FREE 40-page guide to “Getting Junk Food Out of Your Child’s Classroom” and be sure to check out my free rhyming video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!

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Invoking the Cherished Bake Sale to Undermine the Smart Snacks Rules

american cupcakeBack in November, 2010, only a few months after starting The Lunch Tray, I wrote about running my children’s elementary school Election Day bake sale.  In that post I expressed a little bit of ambivalence about selling sweets to raise money  — ambivalence that would evolve over the next four years into outright activism against junk food in schools  —  but at the time I was clearly charmed by the old-timey, innocent feel of the event.  I wrote:

. . . . the bake sale I’m running today couldn’t be more Norman Rockwell: there are flags and buntings everywhere, kids clamoring to take a turn behind the cash box, and almost all the goods are homemade. 

It’s just that sort of nostalgia for the old-fashioned bake sale that’s now being cynically exploited by those seeking to undermine the new Smart Snacks in School rules.

Promulgated under the 2010 the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act (HHFKA) and becoming effective this past July, the Smart Snacks rules greatly improve the nutritional profile of foods and drinks sold to kids during the school day in outlets like school stores, vending machines, cafeteria snack bar lines — and yes, school fundraisers.  These rules impose sensible limits on fat, calories and sodium, while requiring that school snacks be fruits, vegetables, whole-grain or dairy products, or a combination of those foods.

But right from the start, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack knew he would have potential public relations disaster on his hands if he didn’t reassure the American public that the cherished school bake sale would survive the HHFKA’s passage.  So many right wing politicians (including Sarah Palin) and conservative outlets like Fox News were erroneously claiming that the law would “ban bake sales at schools” that Vilsack felt the need to write a letter to Congress to assure the public that the USDA would “consider special exemptions for occasional school-sponsored fundraisers such as bake sales.” Nonetheless, Fox news still warned its viewers to “[s]ay good-bye to homemade brownies and Rice Krispie treats” when President Obama signed the HHFKA into law.

Fast forward to 2014 and the bake sale furor still hasn’t died down.  A few weeks after the Smart Snacks rules went into effect this summer, Secretary Vilsack again felt the need to reassure the public, writing a piece for the Huffington Post entitled “Setting the Record Straight: Healthy School Meal Rules Allow for Bake Sales.”  In that post he reminded readers that:

USDA has given states complete authority to set policies on fundraisers and bake sales that work for them. States are free to allow fundraisers and bake sales featuring foods and beverages that don’t meet the new standards during the school day if they choose. They, not USDA, are responsible for determining the number and the frequency of these events each year.

But granting this freedom to states that are hostile to federal regulation puts the Smart Snacks rules at risk. For example, Georgia’s Board of Education, claiming that the rules are an “absolute overreach of the federal government,” voted 9-1 this summer to allow Georgia schools to hold 30 junk food fundraisers a year, each lasting up to three days.  This means that, despite the Smart Snacks rules, any type of junk food may sold to Georgia school kids for fully one-half of the school year.  And at the time of the vote, Dr. John Barge, the state’s schools superintendent, again invoked the cherished “bake sale” when speaking to the press:

 “We don’t have enough teachers in our classrooms and now we are expected to hire some type of food police to monitor, whether we are having bake sales or not. That is just asinine.”

But perhaps no one has exploited the symbolism of the bake sale more effectively than Texas Republican Congressman Ted Poe, who yesterday announced his introduction of H.R. 5417, i.e., “the Bringing Awareness and Knowledge to Exempt Schools Against Legislative Encroachment Act,” or, the BAKE SALE Act.  According to Poe, this legislation, if passed, would “prohibit any funds from being used to implement USDA’s new, unrealistic rule for school fundraisers and bake sales.”  And in an email to supporters announcing the BAKE SALE bill, Poe raised the specter of the federal government reaching right into the kitchens of brownie-baking moms:

In order to comply with the new rule, parents across the country will have to figure out the calorie, sugar, sodium, and fat count for the goods they prepare for a school bake sale.

But now let’s ask ourselves why the Smart Snacks rules were drafted to regulate school fundraisers in the first place.  Was it because a few times each year, parents were setting up tables of homemade Toll House cookies and muffins to raise a little money for the school dance or to send the band to Disneyland?  Or was it because the trade in highly processed, competitive junk food on school campuses was brisk, profitable, and often took place on a daily basis?

A few examples from my own district, Houston ISD, might be instructive.

Here in HISD, for years it has been common practice for high school PTAs, student groups and sports teams to set up fundraising tables at lunch — every single school day — to sell entrees from local restaurants and fast food chains, everything from pizza to doughnuts to Chinese food.  These veritable “food courts” of junk food have proven so lucrative that many principals not only turn a blind eye to them, they are rarely deterred even when our state (which used to have its own competitive food rules) issued hefty fines after audits of school campuses.  The money flowed in so fast from junk food sales — literally hundreds of thousands of dollars, collectively — that principals often simply regarded those fines as the cost of doing business.

Does that sound like a quaint “bake sale” to you?

Or let’s talk about the school nurse with whom I served on HISD’s School Health Advisory Council several years ago, before Texas’s draconian education budget cuts eliminated his nursing position.  At this nurse’s particular elementary school, the student population was overwhelmingly Hispanic (an ethnic group predisposed to diet-related diseases) and he told me how he routinely examined the necks of those small children and found the tell-tale dark stripe on their skin that’s the first sign of Type 2 diabetes.  But the principal of that school, faced with the same state budget cuts that would result in the nurse’s dismissal, was so pressed for funds that he egged his students on to buy and sell chocolate bars from each other each week, holding out the allure of a “free dress” pass or homework pass for kids who made their sales quota.

Is there anything quaint about that story?

Ultimately, what’s shocking to me is that the adults so passionately fighting to undermine the Smart Snacks rules are making no secret about why they’re doing it.  It’s all about the money.

For example, here in HISD, I was dismayed when a school board member who is otherwise committed to student health expressed discomfort at the idea of banning junk food sales at his/her own child’s high school because the money from such sales was so significant.  When Georgia passed its 30-fundraisers-a-year exemption, the school board chairperson and superintendent issued a joint statement which read:

These fundraisers allow our schools to raise a considerable amount of money for very worthwhile education programs. . .

And yesterday in his email, Congressman Poe wrote that if the Smart Snacks rules are not defunded:

Bake sales and other food-based school fundraisers will be regulated to extinction, leaving schools without funds for certain school programs, field trips, athletic competitions and other activities.

What’s stunning here is the short-term thinking so vividly on display.

In junk-food-fundraiser-happy Georgia, the state ranks 35th in per-student spending, 35% of Georgia school kids are overweight or obese, and obesity is currently costing that state an estimated $2.4 billion annually.  Here in Texas, we rank a dismal 46th place in per-student spending, our high schoolers are among the most obese in the nation, and, by one estimate, obesity will cost Texas employers a stunning $30 billion a year by 2036.  Yet in 2013, Texas state lawmakers passed a law intended to protect daily high school junk food fundraising from the reach of the HHFKA.  But wouldn’t it make more sense to redirect a tiny fraction of the billions of dollars that will be spent on obesity-related healthcare toward school funding, which would eliminate schools’ dependence on the junk food fundraising that contributes to obesity?

As was the case in Georgia’s so-called “bake sale showdown” this battle tends to be framed as “a decision that weigh[s] federal school nutrition regulations against local districts’ efforts to raise funds,” but let’s be utterly clear about what’s really going on here:  it is a decision that weighs student health against local districts’ efforts to raise funds.  And the only reason why that trade-off is palatable for so many adults is because the most serious health consequences of a junk-food-rich diet generally won’t manifest themselves until long after kids graduate from the schools they helped fund with their junk food purchases.

And, at that point, they’re conveniently going to be somebody else’s problem.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 8,600 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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Speaking Truth to Ronald

I’ve just come back from Oak Brook, Illinois where yesterday I attended the annual McDonald’s shareholders’ meeting.  I was hoping for a chance to speak face-to-face with CEO Don Thompson about the company’s aggressive marketing to children but, as you’ll read below, the corporation made that rather hard to do.

I went to Oak Brook as part of a delegation of concerned moms and bloggers invited by Corporate Accountability International (CAI) in connection with their #MomsNotLovinIt campaign.  The group included Sally Kuzemchak of Real Mom Nutrition, Casey Hinds of KY Healthy Kids, Leah Segedie, founder of the Mamavation community, Migdalia Rivera, associate campaign director at MomsRising.org, and Rosa Perea, a health educator and assistant director of the Centro Comunitario Juan Diego in Chicago’s South Side.  Also with us was Greg Akili (who goes by “Akili”), a Los Angeles-based social justice activist.

As you may have read in 2013 (and again yesterday in USA Today), then-nine-year-old Hannah Robertson, also a CAI guest and daughter of food blogger Kia Robertson, made quite a splash at last year’s shareholder meeting when she told Thompson that McDonald’s should stop using kid-directed marketing to “trick” kids into eating its “food that isn’t good for them.”  Hannah’s statement, which was widely reported and which led to an appearance on Good Morning America, was a PR black eye for the corporation.

Are you running from my question, Ronald?
Are you running from my question, Ronald?

But when we walked into the shareholder meeting yesterday morning, it became clear that this year McDonald’s was determined to keep tight control over the proceedings.

For example, in the past, questions to the CEO were posed on a first-in-line basis —  and CAI has proven itself to be very adept at quickly leading its guests up to the microphones.  This year, however, we were greeted by a large sign indicating that all questions to Mr. Thompson had to be submitted in writing, and that only those individuals whose questions were selected in advance by the corporation would be able to address Mr. Thompson at the meeting.

It might seem a bit paranoid to believe that this change in policy was made solely in anticipation of our attendance, but when we moms submitted our proxy agreements and received our IDs, we realized that only our six badges — out of the hundreds of badges issued to the other meeting attendees — bore a bright red sticker.  Hmm.  It was quite clear then that McDonald’s knew exactly who we were and that they planned to keep close tabs on us.

The "Scarlet Sticker Six!" L-R, me, Migdalia, Rosa, Leah, Casey and Sally
The “Scarlet Sticker Six!” L-R, me, Migdalia, Rosa, Leah, Casey and Sally

Two of us were told to wait for a McDonald’s lawyer to speak with us before we were allowed to take our IDs, and eventually the same lawyer approached all six of us.  We were told only that we weren’t allowed to live-tweet the meeting, which was fine with us – none of us had our phones with us at any rate. But once we went into the meeting room, where we were free to choose our own seats, some of us noticed that McDonald’s employees took seats right next to us or immediately behind us.

Because of the new and restrictive questioning policy, McDonald’s could easily have prevented all of us from speaking at the meeting.  However, I predicted to my seat mate that the company would choose just one person from our group to avoid the PR disaster of completely silencing “the moms,” and that’s exactly what happened. Sally Kuzemchak was selected by Mr. Thompson and gave a terrific statement from her perspective as a mother of two and a registered dietitian.  (I believe she’ll have her statement up on Real Mom Nutrition later today.)  But the McDonald’s strategy didn’t go quite according to plan:  during the main meeting (before the question and answer session) three other people in our party  — Sriram Madhusoodanan of CAI, Casey Hinds and Leah Segedie — took procedural advantage of a shareholder vote to also deliver their own powerful statements.

When the meeting concluded, those of us who were unable deliver our statements were hoping to chat briefly with some of the McDonald’s executives, as we’d been told that they typically mingle with the crowd after a meeting.  But this year the executives hustled out of the room almost immediately; Akili did speak with Mr. Thompson for a few seconds but then he rounded a corner and was gone.  I was able to speak with Bob Langert, Vice President of Corporate Social Responsibility, and later in the day I talked briefly with Heidi Barker, a McDonald’s spokesperson.  While I’m pretty sure I did nothing to change either of their opinions on the ethics of advertising to children, I did appreciate their time.

But the reason why I left my kids and husband in Texas and flew to Illinois, in the middle of a busy school week, was to have 45 seconds to speak directly to McDonald’s key decision-maker, CEO Don Thompson.  Unfortunately, though, Mr. Thompson and his company did their level best to keep that encounter from taking place.

In case you’re wondering, here’s the statement and question I would have posed to him, had I been given the opportunity:

I’m Bettina Siegel, a parent and writer about issues relating to children and food.

McDonald’s now includes milk and apples in its Happy Meals and it touts those foods in its ads directed toward children. But let’s be honest:  children don’t nag their parents to go to McDonald’s because they want milk and apples.  They nag their parents because they want burgers and fries, as well as the Happy Meal toys you use to entice young children.

By targeting kids with hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising, you clearly hope to make them lifelong consumers of your brand.  But the American Academy of Pediatrics states that any advertising to young children is “inherently deceptive” and “exploitative.”

One in three children will develop type 2 diabetes as a result of diets high in McDonald’s-style junk food and will likely live shorter lives than their parents.

Mr. Thompson, will McDonald’s acknowledge its role in this health crisis and agree to cease all marketing to our most vulnerable population, our children?

Meanwhile, if McDonald’s was hoping to keep our concerns out of the public eye by suppressing our participation in the meeting Q&A, their strategy seems to have failed. Here’s a list, which is likely to grow in the coming days, of mainstream media outlets noting our presence at the meeting and, in some cases, including interviews with members of our group:

This list doesn’t include the many blog posts and and other social media conversations which mentioned our efforts, including live tweets of the meeting from the New York Times‘ food industry reporter, Stephanie Strom, and the Associated Press‘s food industry reporter, Candace Choi.

Our group, taking a photo after the meeting on the grounds of McDonald's HQ, aka "Hamburger University"
Our group, taking a photo after the meeting on the grounds of McDonald’s HQ, aka “Hamburger University”

Let me end by saying that this sort of face-to-face activism was very much outside the comfort zone of many of us, myself included, and we were so grateful for the supportive tweets and Facebook messages sent by our readers and colleagues. I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank CAI for making this trip possible and for being one of the most efficient and effective groups I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. And I so enjoyed getting to know (or reconnecting with) this incredible group of women, each of whom came to the issue of junk food marketing to children from different life experiences, but all of whom spoke out about it with grace and courage.

And if Mr. Thompson ever does decide to answer my question above, I promise you’ll be the first to know about it.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 8,100 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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“Fed Up” Film: Why You Should See It — and Tell a Friend

By now many of you have seen this eye-catching poster for a new documentary film released last week, “Fed Up:”

fed up

You can click on the photo to enlarge it, but the caption above the “FU” reads “Congress says pizza is a vegetable,” which harkens back to some dark days in 2011 for those of us who care about improving school food.

In case you missed this infamous episode, after the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act the USDA was tasked with coming up with improved nutrition standards for school meals, based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine. In an era in which one out of three children are overweight or obese and very few children eat sufficient quantities of fruits and vegetables, the IOM sensibly recommended closing an existing regulatory loophole allowing schools to count the tomato paste on pizza as a school food vegetable.  The USDA agreed to do so.

But fewer pizza slices on school food trays would result in a huge financial hit to the big suppliers of frozen pizza.  Enter the lobbyists from ConAgra Foods and The Schwan Food Company, who exerted their considerable influence on Congressional representatives.  Lo and behold, the tomato paste loophole survived.  (Similarly, Congressional representatives from potato-growing states successfully blocked a new rule that would reduce the number of starchy vegetables that could served to school children in a single week.)

This sort of collusion between Big Food and Congress leaves many of us in the food reform world feeling quite “fed up” indeed.  And that’s the central focus of “Fed Up,” which is produced and narrated by Katie Couric and co-produced by Laurie David.  David was also the producer of “An Inconvenient Truth,” and just as that film served as a wake-up call for climate change, “Fed Up” hopes to similarly educate the public about the serious flaws in our food system and how the food and beverage industries have a vested interest in maintaining a status quo that puts profits over our collective health — and often with the assistance of the federal government.

As a member of the film’s advisory board, I was able to see an early cut of the documentary and can tell you it’s a very compelling narrative.  The film includes video diaries of preteens and teens who are fighting obesity and, rather than being exploitative, their stories make the viewer feel on a visceral level just how intractable this problem is.  You find yourself rooting for these kids, but at the same time you know their chances of success in today’s food environment are depressingly low.  That’s made evident when one child does manage to lose a considerable amount of weight by cutting out processed foods – and then gains it all back before the filming is even completed.

Even though the film is targeted to an adult audience, it would be entirely appropriate for preteens and teens and I plan to take my own two kids to the theater when the film opens here in Houston this weekend.  For list of opening dates and locations nationwide, click here.

The film is reportedly filling theaters in its current markets, and if that continues to be the case it will be released more widely.  So please do go see it if it’s in your area, and please spread the word to friends and family.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 8,100 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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“The Family Cooks:” Book Review and Giveaway!

Back in 2011, I had the honor of interviewing Laurie David, author of The Family Dinner: Great Ways to Connect with Your Kids, One Meal at a Time.  At that time, Laurie was better known for her environmental activism and as the executive producer of the Oscar-winning “An Inconvenient Truth,” but she and her co-author, chef Kirstin Uhrenholdt (whom I also interviewed), had created a terrific resource for busy families trying to eat together more often, replete with recipes, tables games, discussion topics and more.  If you haven’t yet read it, I encourage you to check it out.

Laurie’s again making news, this time with the pending release (May 9th) of a new documentary about the obesity crisis called Fed Up. Co-executive produced by Katie Couric, the film exposes a decades-long campaign by the food industry to confuse and mislead the public about the factors leading to weight gain, resulting in one of the largest health crises in our history.  (I’ve seen a screener of the film, which is excellent, and am honored to be a member of Fed Up‘s advisory board.)

The Family CooksThe film concludes with information on how Americans can fight against the obesity tide, and one of the most important pieces of advice is for families to reduce their reliance on restaurants and processed foods by getting back in the kitchen.  To that end, Laurie and Kristin have banded together again to create a new book, The Family Cooks: 100+ Recipes Guaranteed to Get Your Family Craving Food That’s Simple, Tasty, and Incredibly Good for You.

The Family Cooks is beautifully photographed and engagingly written in a causal, conversational tone.  You feel as though your good friend has dropped over for a glass of wine during dinner prep and is sharing her favorite healthful recipes with you.  The book includes useful tips on creating grocery lists, handling picky eaters and planning meals, and many recipes are so easy they’re marked with a “K” for “kids in charge.”  You’ll find everything from reliable basics like “Weekday Roast Chicken with Lemon and Garlic” to more exotic dishes like “Curried Quinoa ‘Risotto.”  It’s a great new resource for experienced and novice cooks alike, and I can’t wait to start cooking from it!

And now for the giveaway: one lucky reader can win a free copy of The Family Cooks just by leaving a comment below before 7 pm CST on Monday, April  28th.  You can tell me why you’d like to win, your biggest family dinner challenge or you can just say hi.  I’ll use a random number generator after the comment period closes to select one lucky winner and if you comment twice (e.g., to respond to another reader’s comment), I’ll use the number of your first comment to enter you in the drawing.  I’ll email you directly if you win and announce the winner on TLT’s Facebook page, too.  (This offer is open to U.S. residents only.)

Good luck!

 [Blogger disclosure:  As with most of my book reviews, I received a free copy of this book for my perusal.  However, I never accept any other form of compensation for the book reviews you see on The Lunch Tray.]

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 8,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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A Mom Says, Just Leave the Snacks at Home!

A few months ago, I shared on Facebook and Twitter a terrific piece in Parents magazine about how today’s kids are being offered food more often than ever before.  Written by Real Mom Nutrition‘s Sally Kuzemchak, “The Snack Epidemic” reported that:

In the late 1970s, the average kid between the ages of 2 and 6 ate one snack a day between meals, but today kids typically eat almost three . . . .  Obesity experts now believe that the frequency of eating, not just bigger portion sizes, is also to blame for the uptick in calorie intake for kids and grown-ups alike.

Potato chipsI think these findings jibe with the observations of many parents.  Even those of us who get annoyed when our kids are offered junk food by others might admit to engaging in some “over-snacking” ourselves, such as always carrying around a packaged snack (healthy or otherwise) to ward off crankiness or boredom — but not necessarily hunger — when we’re out with our kids.

In light of all that, today I’m sharing this post by blogger Karen Perry, urging parents to take kids to the playground without bringing any snacks along at all!   Radical!  

While Perry believes kids need to work up a healthy appetite before meals, she’s really arguing for a return to a time when kids were less hovered over by parents generally.  (And given that thesis, it’s no surprise that I learned of Perry’s post via Lenore Skenazy of Free Range Kids, to whom I owe a hat tip.)

What do you think of all this, TLTers?  Do you agree that kids are “over-snacked,” even when the offerings are healthful ones?  Or do you think frequent eating is no big deal?  Let me know in a comment below.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join almost 8,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also join almost 5,000 TLT followers on Twitter, see my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my free video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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Lunch Tray Friday Buffet: Gail Collins, Empty Souls, Dobermans and More!

Happy Friday, TLT’ers!  I’m closing out the week with a quick round-up of links of interest:

Gail Collins on School Food, Paul Ryan on “Empty Souls”

TLT reader Jennifer Baugher LeBarre sent this empty bag to Paul Ryan's office.   Love it.
In response to his “empty souls” speech, TLT reader Jennifer Baugher LeBarre sent this empty bag to Paul Ryan’s office. Love it.

Gail Collins had a great column yesterday in the New York Times on the never-ending politicization of school food, prompted in part by Paul Ryan’s recent (and, dare I say, bone-headed) comment that kids who eat school meals, rather than a home-packed brown bag lunch, are left with “a full stomach and an empty soul.”  Jon Stewart also had some fun with Ryan over that comment, which you can watch here.

Can We Blame School Food for Childhood Obesity?

A new film, Lunch Hour, is coming out and it apparently draws a direct link between the childhood obesity crisis and school food. But it also sounds like it might have been filmed before the improvements of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act were implemented?  I’ll see if I can get my hands on a screener copy and will share my thoughts here.

More on Threats to Healthier School Food Rules

Politico ran a story earlier this week, similar in subject matter to my post on Civil Eats last month, evaluating whether the gains of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act are likely to be rolled back due to mounting pressure from the School Nutrition Association and other factions.

Cleaning Up the Sports Concession Stand

A new study from the University of Iowa finds that high school sports concession stands can improve the nutritional quality of their offerings — and without going broke!  (Hat tip: Real Mom Nutrition)

Texas Monthly Spotlights Chinese Chicken Petition

On Texas Monthly‘s website, executive editor Mimi Swartz has written a profile of me and the Change.org petition I started, along with Nancy Huehnergarth and Barbara Kowalcyk, regarding Chinese-processed chicken in school meals.  See why my husband now refers to me as The Doberman  — though my kids still think of me as a lap dog.  :-)

Join Me For a #FoodFri Tweetchat Today!

Later today, I’ll be one of the panelists for Moms Rising’s weekly #FoodFri Tweetchat, this time on the topic of athletes getting paid to promote fast food and other unhealthy food to kids.  I’ll be joined by an impressive group of co-panelists:  the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, Leah Segedie of MamavationCasey Hinds of KY Healthy KidsCorporate Accountability International and Anna Lappé, principal of Small Planet Institute and creator of Food MythBusters films.  Please join us at 1pm EST, using the hash tag #foodfri.

Have a great weekend, and see you next week!

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 6,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also follow TLT on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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Your Monday Kid-and-Food News Round-Up

Happy Monday, TLT’ers! I was out of town and had to let the blog languish a bit, so here’s a link round-up to kick off the week and get you up to speed:

President Signs Epi-Pen Bill Into Law

Back in September I told you about pending legislation which would provide financial incentives to schools that stockpile Epi-Pens and would also allow school personnel to use them in emergencies — even on children who don’t have an Epi-Pen prescription on file.  I’m glad to report that last week President Obama signed this common sense, potentially life-saving bill into law.  More here.

Food Policy and Food Assistance Programs

There were two very interesting food policy opinion pieces in yesterday’s New York Times, the first looking at the “insanity” of the House Republican farm bill, which increases misguided subsidies to farmers and cuts needed food assistance to the poor, and the second examining how tweaks to the WIC and SNAP programs may alter behavior and reduce obesity.

Sleep Deprived Kids May Be More Prone to Obesity

A new study finds that kids may eat more after sleeping less.  Something to think about when so many American kids are navigating busy extracurricular schedules and crushing amounts of homework.

Economically Disadvantaged Kids Make Better Food Choices

An interesting — and encouraging — new British study finds that economically disadvantaged kids are making better choices in the school cafeteria compared to their more affluent peers.

Teaching Nannies to Break Out of the “Nugget Rut”

So you’re raising your kids in Manhattan and your full-time nanny’s reliance on nuggets and mac-n-cheese isn’t sufficiently challenging your little ones’ palates?  This may be the ultimate Rich Person’s Problem, but I suppose it’s a real problem nonetheless.  Enter marc&mark, a new service that, for a mere $2500, will teach your nanny to cook more diverse meals.

Hooray!

A Head Start on Healthy Eating

Turning to the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, an exciting new curriculum called “Eat Play Grow” is teaching children in low-income areas the basics of healthy eating — and introducing them to new fruits and vegetables in the classroom every day.  You can read about the implementation of the program in one East Harlem Head Start class in this New York Times report.

* * *

Happy Monday, and happy reading! :-)

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Help Get Food Education Into Every American School!

The longer I blog on The Lunch Tray, the more I become convinced that the keys to reversing the childhood obesity epidemic and improving kids’ health rest with kids themselves.

That is to say, we absolutely must do what we can to improve our children’s food environment — school food reform, improved competitive food, reining in children’s junk food advertising and more — but unless kids also understand why healthy eating is important and what healthy eating looks like, those efforts may not be effective.   Junk food and fast food will always be available, tasty and cheap and, absent sufficient motivation to avoid them, they unfortunately represent the path of of least resistance for many Americans — children and adults alike.

That’s why I’m so excited about the new partnership between Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution and Food Day to bring food education and cooking classes into schools across America.  I briefly told you about the Get Food Education in Every School initiative when it was announced in May, but now you can read more about it in this week’s Huffington Post editorial by Michael Jacobson of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (the folks behind Food day).  Jacobson writes:

The anti-hunger group Feeding America estimates that elementary school students receive just 3.4 hours of nutrition education — actual education and not marketing — each year. Fewer than 25 percent of high school students take any family and consumer science classes, formerly known as home economics, and those classes are often the first to go when school budgets are trimmed. And parents have to shoulder some of the blame, when, in all too many harried households, “cooking” actually means “microwaving” or otherwise heating some well-preserved, factory-extruded, combination of flour, fat, salt, sugar, dyes, and other chemicals.

But just as we expect our schools to do the heavy lifting when it comes to teaching geography, algebra, physical education, and history, we should expect schools to teach children about food — where it comes from and how it affects our bodies and our health

In the campaign’s first year, organizers hope to raise awareness about the lack of food education and to build a broad coalition that will build support for food education at the local, state, and federal levels of government.

I’m proud to be one of the early supporters of this effort (you can read my thoughts on Jamie Oliver’s blog here), along with The American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences, American College of Lifestyle Medicine, American Medical Students Association, Edible Schoolyard Project, Center for Ecoliteracy, The Food Trust, National Association of Nutrition Professionals, Wellness in the Schools, and Nourish.

I hope you’ll join me by signing this petition to show your support as well.  You can also promote the campaign on social media using the #FoodEd hashtag and you can follow the effort on Pinterest.

I’ll be participating in periodic conference calls with the campaign organizers and will share more information about Get Food Education in Every School throughout the coming year.  And when school starts up again, I’ll also be sharing an interview with Michael Jacobson about the effort.  If you have particular questions you’d like me to ask him, feel free to leave them in a comment below.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 6,200 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (and then adding it to your news feed or interest lists) to get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also follow TLT on Twitter, check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post. And be sure to check out my video for kids about processed food, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory!”

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School Lunches from Fattest and Fittest Counties Compared – But Is It Fair to Do So?

Over the weekend a friend shared on TLT’s Facebook page this post from The Daily, which compares school lunches from the fattest and fittest counties in the nation, Greene County, AL and Routt County, CO, respectively.

According to The Daily, the school food in Routt County, where only 14% of adults are obese, includes “seasonal vegetables, fresh-baked bread and hot entrees” and  “[a]ll lunches feature a salad bar stocked with seasonal fruits and vegetables, as well as a deli station with fresh-baked bread and deli meats sliced in-house.”  Meanwhile, in Greene County, where 48% of adults are obese, kids are served “chicken nuggets, hot dogs, Salisbury steak and sloppy joes.”

Not surprising, I suppose.  But, still, this comparison really irked me.

First of all, nowhere does the piece mention that the full price for an elementary school lunch in Steamboat Springs is $3.00 (with the price rising to $4.00 in high school), whereas last year the full price for an elementary school lunch in Greene County was a mere $1.25 (though, due to changes in the federal law, that price will go up next year.)  This price differential clearly plays a role in the ability of Steamboat Springs to craft its impressive menu of “Maple-tamarind glazed chicken over Jasmine rice” and “Thai chicken curry over jasmine rice with full salad bar.”

Second, let’s consider the cultural factors at play.  In a chart at the end of the post, The Daily discloses that the median income in Greene County is $22,000 and over 80% of the population is African-American.  Routt County, home to affluent Steamboat Springs, has a population that’s 96% white with a median income of over $60,000.   So is it any wonder that parents in Routt County demand — and students are much more likely to accept — food which, in the words of The Daily, is “worthy of a chic, health-conscious restaurant in New York or Los Angeles?”

Finally, the implicit point of the exercise seems to be to indict Greene County schools for perpetuating the obesity in their communities.  But the Greene County menu at the end of the post didn’t strike me as that egregious, all things considered.   There does seem to be an over-reliance on potatoes (and, thanks to the successful lobbying of potato growers, the new federal school meal standards won’t prevent that practice from continuing), and the entrees tend to fall into the “doctored junk food” category of pizza, chicken nuggets and hot dogs.  That said, kids in Greene County are also offered fresh fruit and vegetable sides like carrot sticks, apple slices, orange wedges and fresh grapes.  Here in Houston ISD, the nation’s seventh largest district, we were thrilled when such items started appearing on our menus a while back.

So while there’s clearly room for improvement in Greene, it feels unfair to compare it to a county which places an unusually high value on exceptional school food, has a student population better conditioned to accept such food, and has affluent parents who can pay the higher price tag that comes with it.

 

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 3,500 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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Bloomberg vs. Soda: My Piece in The Guardian

[The following piece originally appeared on the website of The Guardian.]

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has made headlines by announcing his administration’s plan to ban the sale of sugary drinks offered in containers larger than 16 ounces. The proposed “large soda” ban would affect food service establishments like restaurants, movie theaters and street vendors, but would not affect grocery or convenience stores. (Diet sodas, fruit juices, milk-based drinks and alcoholic beverages would be exempted.)

The move, which would take effect next March, falls under the purview of the city’s health department. It therefore seems unlikely to require any outside approval beyond its likely passage by the city’s Board of Health.

As a writer who blogs daily about kids and food, I’m deeply immersed in the issue of childhood obesity and its related ills. I’ve reported on children needing weight-related knee replacements and new research indicating that diabetes, which is on the rise among teens, may be a much more pernicious illness in pediatric patients than in adults. I also know that excess sugar consumption harms the health of all children, even those who are not overweight. So you might assume I’d welcome Bloomberg’s large-sized soda ban with great enthusiasm.

Instead, I feel ambivalent about it.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m no fan of the soda industry (one that rightly has been compared to Big Tobacco) and while some commentators are dubious, I accept the proposition that the consumption of sugary beverages, particularly soda, has been a major driver of our current obesity and health crisis. I support the idea of a soda tax; I even approved of a more controversial proposal (also Bloomberg’s), which would have exempted soda purchases from the food stamps program.

I stand behind any measures to curb the advertising of soda to children, including the intrusion of beverage companies into schools through bus advertising, vending machines and support of athletic programs. I’d even be OK with sticking a warning label on non-nutritive sugary beverages. In short, I have absolutely no problem with public policies that encourage health-promoting behavior and disincentives which lead people to avoid harmful behavior.

But forbidding people outright to buy the size of soda they desire strikes me as quite paternalistic and intrusive and – if my Twitter feed is any gauge of public sentiment – likely to fuel resentment. And while it’s true that Bloomberg’s other, similarly coercive health measure – the banning of smoking in restaurants – was controversial when announced but is now widely accepted, one key difference is that smoking in restaurants not only adversely affects the smoker, but also the non-smokers around him. With soda, though, there is no immediate harm to bystanders that might otherwise justify the proposal in the minds of many New Yorkers.

There may also be problems implementing the ban. First, one clear flaw is that at fast food establishments and other venues where free refills are the norm, nothing in the proposal would prevent customers from bypassing the soda limit by simply refilling their 16-ounce cup. Similarly, convenience stores like 7-Eleven (which are currently expanding in New York City) might be exempt from the ban, ironically preserving the most iconic super-sized sugary drink of them all: the Big Gulp.

Second, there’s the possibility that the ban will actually create the perverse economic result of normal soda drinkers subsidizing the excess soda-drinking of others in establishments offering free refills. And if determined soda-buyers choose to buy multiple smaller containers and/or vendors raise soda prices, the plan could conceivably function as a back-door soda tax – but one that lines the pockets of soda purveyors, instead of providing revenue to the government (which may use the funds to defray obesity-related healthcare costs).

Third, such a ban is likely to disproportionately affect poorer New Yorkers. This might seem like an odd concern from someone who supported the food stamp soda ban, but I see a categorical difference between the use of government-issued supplemental food benefits for an entirely non-nutritive beverage, versus spending one’s own money on it. In that regard, it’s notable that a 24-ounce McDonald’s Coke (with 81g of sugar) would be banned, but the much pricier 24-ounce Starbucks White Chocolate Mocha Frappucino (with 87g of sugar) would likely not, due to its milk content.

Finally, while no fault of Bloomberg’s (who is necessarily limited to taking action only within his city), nothing in his proposal gets at one of the roots of Americans’ over-consumption of soda – that is, the wrongheaded agricultural subsidies that have resulted in a liter bottle of Coke being cheaper than a similar-sized container of skim milk.

All of this said, though, I do admire Mayor Bloomberg for his dogged, forward-thinking approaches to improving public health in his city, where, currently, over half of adults are overweight or obese. Undeterred by the prior defeat of his proposed soda tax and food stamp/soda ban – and the $70 million spent by the soda lobby around the country since 2009 to defeat such measures – Bloomberg’s latest salvo does show ingenuity and real political courage.

So it may well be that, after a lot of initial grumbling, New Yorkers will eventually grow accustomed to thinking of a “large soda” as containing 16 ounces, which, it’s worth noting, is still twice as large as the serving size Americans thought of as “standard” back in the 1950s. Moreover, if the measure proves at all successful in lowering the city’s rates of disease and/or obesity, that data could prove to be a powerful tool in future battles against Big Soda.

If any of that comes to pass, I’ll happily eat my words here. And wash them down with a very small glass of Coke.

 

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 3,200 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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Weighing In on “Weight of the Nation”

Just before the holiday weekend I finally finished viewing all four installments of the HBO documentary on obesity, “Weight of the Nation.”

I’d been contacted by one of the show’s producers months before and was eagerly anticipating the show’s debut.  So I was surprised to encounter so much negative feedback about it before I watched.  One friend of mine pronounced the show “boring,” particularly the first episode on “Consequences,” and some TLT readers told me they were disappointed with the lack of meaningful solutions offered.  Appetite for Profit‘s Michele Simon (who originally refused to watch the show on principle) strongly criticized the documentary in “Uncle Sam and HBO Team Up for Fat Shaming, Avoiding Politics,” as did the Crunk Feminist writer “sheridf,” in “The Wait of the Nation.”  [Hat tip to Dana Woldow for pointing me to the latter.]  And here’s a good round-up of many more critiques of the show.

It seems that a lot of commentators took issue with the very premise of “Weight of the Nation” — an examination of weight and obesity —  by equating it with “bullying,” “weight-shaming” or just  plain being “mean.”   One writer (who felt justified in critiquing the show even before watching it) likened the show’s focus on obesity to encouraging racial or class discrimination:

The real message of all the hand-wringing is not that obesity is a risk for health and the GDP. It’s that fat is a cultural signifier: Just as swarthy skin and accents marked the lower classes 100 years ago, today we identify the Other by waistlines and thigh bulges. And that’s what you’ll be seeing on HBO this week.

But I feel this particular attack on the show was entirely unjustified.  Rather than enforcing negative stereotypes that “fat people are just lazy and lack willpower,” I thought the interviews with overweight or obese individuals were respectful, dignified and gave needed human faces and voices to what sometimes feels like an abstract, statistical issue.   Personally, I was left with only greater compassion for those adversely affected by this complex problem, with roots at both the individual and the societal level.

“Fat stigma” aside, other critics felt the focus on obesity — rather than just health generally — provided political cover for those fueling the crisis.  As Michele Simon put it:

Continuing to focus on obesity is problematic for numerous reasons. As this program painfully demonstrates, it’s too easy to place the blame on individuals, to make them the sole locus of change instead of fixing the systemic problems with our food system. Also, exercise is a powerful and safe distraction for policymakers.

Finally, obsessing over obesity is a great gift to the food industry because this is a problem food companies can supposedly help fix. They can market healthier foods! They can help fund playgrounds and exercise programs!

Instead of talking body size, (don’t thin people get sick?) let’s garner the political power we need to focus squarely on fixing the food system, which is admittedly more complex than calories in, calories out but is also more compassionate.

But I was actually pleasantly surprised that the documentary didn’t just gloss over the role of Big Food and its stronghold on our nation’s politicians and food policies, as I feared it might.

For example, as someone who has written extensively about governmental efforts to rein in the advertising of junk food to children, I found it fascinating (in a perverse sort of way) to watch Congressional hearings I’d only read about, in which Republican lawmakers put the kibosh on purely voluntary reforms in this area.  Similarly, the show offered a reasonably good primer on the role of agricultural subsidies in distorting our food supply and the outsized power of huge agribusiness companies.  In both cases, the message to any viewer was clear:  food companies do not have your (or your kids’) best interests at heart and they will do whatever is necessary to preserve profits, even at the expense of our nation’s health.

At the same time, I thought the show’s focus on obesity at the individual/local community level had its own value.    Yes, we certainly do need to fix large scale flaws in our food system, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore individuals trying to effectuate their own change.  For example, observing the incredible vigilance required to maintain a healthy weight after weight loss (as shown by the two women on the National Weight Control Registry) will likely serve as both a cautionary tale for those yet to gain excess weight and be instructive for those struggling to maintain their weight after a diet.  (For more on the science of weight maintenance, see my post “The Latest Science on Obesity  – and Why Early Childhood Intervention is Critical“).  Meanwhile, many viewers seeking to improve their own health might also benefit from the research presented on “mindful eating” and the chemical role of stress in overeating.  And I thought it was useful to see local efforts (both in workplaces and cities) which have been successful in improving health so that interested viewers can replicate those efforts more widely.

So overall I felt the documentary did a good job of providing information and advice for the individual viewer and giving at least a broad strokes outline of the societal and political underpinnings of this public health crisis.  But the show’s greatest weakness, in my opinion, was the lack of any real public policy solutions to address the latter.

For example, the final installment of the show ended with rosy but vague predictions that obesogenic foods will someday be viewed as we now view cigarettes — and that food companies will be “part of the solution.”  Yet, to date, industry efforts at self-regulation have been ineffectual and Big Food has repeatedly and successfully blocked any actual regulation of its activities.  (See “Big Food’s Money vs. Children’s Health:  Guess Which Wins?“).   So having already been shown by the filmakers the food industry’s entrenched power and its widespread predatory practices, the viewer is left scratching his or her head.  What on earth is going to account for the food industry’s supposed future role as promoter of good health?  On that critical question, I thought “Weight of the Nation” proved to be very much a lightweight.

So, what did you think of the show?  I’d love to hear your views about it in a comment below.

Do You Love The Lunch Tray? ♥♥♥ Then “like” The Lunch Tray! Join over 3,000 TLT fans by liking TLT’s Facebook page (or follow on Twitter) and you’ll get your Lunch delivered fresh daily, along with bonus commentary, interesting kid-and-food links, and stimulating discussion with other readers. You can also check out my virtual bulletin boards on Pinterest and find selected TLT posts on The Huffington Post.

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