Sunday, March 14, 2010

Michelle Obama's Let's Move - Will it Move Industry?

So what's all the fuss over Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign to end childhood obesity, and will it make a difference? Of course, it's too soon to know for sure (it just launched last month), but early signs indicate more talk than action and deafening silence on corporate marketing practices.

The most obvious problem is framing the issue around obesity, which implies a couple of troubling assumptions. One, that skinny kids are just fine, no matter what garbage they are being fed, and two, that exercise, which has long been a convenient distraction, will continue to be so.

What is Let’s Move?

I highly recommend spending a few minutes perusing the Let's Move website, which is simple, but informative in describing the campaign. (For a more detailed description, read the press release.) While the name Let's Move implies a program all about exercise, in fact 3 of the 4 components have to do with food, which leads me to wonder why the White House wanted that to be less obvious. According to the home page:
Let’s Move will give parents the support they need, provide healthier food in schools, help our kids to be more physically active, and make healthy, affordable food available in every part of our country.
All laudable goals indeed, but notably absent is any criticism of the billions of dollars a year Big Food spends successfully convincing both parents and children to eat highly processed junk food and sugary beverages. Michelle Obama may be able to withstand the call of the Happy Meal, but most parents aren't so lucky to have a White House chef at their disposal.

To her credit, the First Lady is saying many good things about parents needing more support. Also, for the first time I heard the phrase "food desert" uttered on national TV. So she really does seem to understand that it's not all about education or personal responsibility.

But how exactly will Mrs. Obama and her husband attempt to end childhood obesity "within a generation." First is the formation of yet another task force. As the President's memo explains, members of the Task Force on Childhood Obesity are to include the Secretaries of the Interior, Agriculture, Health and Human Services, Education, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, and the Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff to the First Lady. Heavy hitters yes, but might they have just a few other items already on their to-do list?

Also, in key language, the memo explains that "the functions of the Task Force are advisory only," meaning that this body, at the end of the day (or many months), will only make recommendations for another body (Congress?) to then maybe, someday, consider.

Do We Really Need Another Task Force?

The Obama Administration may be surprised (since they are calling it the "first ever") to learn that theirs is not the first federal task force on this issue. The previous administration had a few failed attempts. We already tried the Task Force on Media and Childhood Obesity, which the Federal Communications Commission spearheaded. Perhaps it never really went anywhere thanks to its members, who included the likes of Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Disney.

Then there was the Food and Drug Administration's Obesity Working Group, which was broader than just childhood obesity, and whose pathetic achievement was the startling discovery (and accompanying silly web-based tool) that "calories count."

But given that we really can't count anything tried under the previous administration, I am willing to wait and see if this task force can come up with something better. It certainly can’t be any worse than the lame "Small Steps" program (still online).

And let's not forget the still active Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children, which is comprised of officials from four agencies: the Federal Trade Commission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In December of last year, this body released "tentative proposed nutrition standards" (for food products the government says are A-OK to market to kids) and is planning a final report with recommendations (for voluntary standards) to Congress this July. (Read author and fellow blogger Jill Richardson's excellent description of its public panel and proposed standards)

This is the historical backdrop into which Michelle Obama now brings us Let's Move. It’s not as if we haven’t been here before; she’s building on many failed attempts. But let’s take a closer look at one of the four Let’s Move components – school food.

How to Improve School Nutrition?

Under the "Healthier Schools" tab of the campaign's website, I recognize a few programs that have been out there for some time. For example, the underfunded Healthier US School Challenge and the ineffective Team Nutrition program, both under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that agency whose number one mission is to prop up Big Agriculture. (The USDA also happens to be in charge of school nutrition and other food assistance programs, which has never proven to be a good combination.)

A few things are new under Let’s Move, including doubling the number of schools that meet the Healthier US Schools Challenge and adding 1,000 schools per year for two years after that. And the President proposes to increase the federal budget by $1 billion annually to improve the quality of school meals. This sounds impressive, but as school lunch expert and Chef Ann Cooper pointed out in a recent Washington Post article, a mere 10 percent increase is a drop in the bucket. Currently, we feed 31 million students a day on $9.3 billion, which amounts to only $2.68 per meal. When was the last time you ate a decent lunch less than 3 bucks? (No, the dollar menu meal doesn't count.)

And nowhere is any mention of the ongoing problem of competitive foods, which is government doublespeak for Coke and Pepsi vending machines in every school hallway, Doritos, Milky Way, and Good Humor sold in school stores, not to mention fast food like Pizza Hut that has taken over many school lunchrooms. Maybe that’s because the Obama Administration has decided that the success of Let’s Move depends in part on "the creation of public private partnerships." That sounds familiar.

Working With Industry?

Since signing up for the Let's Move email updates, I haven’t been too impressed. Here are two topics that landed in my in-box last week: Attention Techies! Apps for Healthy Kids Launched Yesterday and Paralympic Games Show All Athletes Can Be Champions. Now please don't send hate mail; I have nothing against apps or the Paralympics, I just don't understand how these concepts will solve childhood obesity “within a generation.”

In an especially bad sign, Michelle Obama is speaking at a gathering of the Grocery Manufacturers Association this Tuesday. As I chronicled in Appetite for Profit, GMA, the lobbying arm of packaged foods conglomerates such as Kraft and PepsiCo has a long history of undermining school nutrition standards, among other positive policies.

As another blogger suggests, Mrs. Obama's own ties to Big Food may explain her deferential treatment of industry. She served on the board of directors of TreeHouse Foods (a spinoff of conglomerate Dean Foods) for two years until 2007, when her husband's presidential campaign became all consuming. This same blogger predicts that at the GMA meeting:
Mrs. Obama will focus on "the pressing need to pursue comprehensive solutions to combat childhood obesity" and call upon food manufacturers to join these efforts by "providing healthier food options and better information about healthy food choices."
But Kraft, PepsiCo, Kellogg's and others have been all over that idea for several years now with their "smart choices" foods and claims of responsible marketing to children through its bogus Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative.

We won't hear any scolding or warning aimed at industry. Instead, the First Lady will simply ask the major food corporations to jump on the Let's Move bandwagon. And they will do so gladly. With no threats looming (for example, that Congress might pass legislation to restrict marketing to kids) Big Food has nothing to fear; quite the contrary, industry gains positive PR in the process. Indeed, not missing a beat, GMA sent the White House a letter of support for the campaign on the same day that Let's Move launched.

Let’s Move the Corporations Out of Washington

The bottom line for me is that while there are many things to like about Let's Move and it's certainly encouraging for a First Lady to talk about access to fresh, healthy food as a national priority, much of it is still rhetoric we've heard before.

To turn the talk into real action will take a ton of leadership from President Obama and even more political will from Congress. Most importantly, unless and until the ubiquitous junk food marketing stops, both in schools and out, very little of substance will change and we will be back here once again with the next administration's childhood obesity task force.

Let me know what you think.

Postscript (3/17): Michelle Obama tells GMA curb junk food marketing to kids, wants more "healthy food" marketing instead. Read about her talk on Marion Nestle's blog and see the transcript.


Hemi Weingarten (Fooducate) said...

Excellent Post.

I share your skepticism and wrote about it as "Let's Move" Launched:

It is far more profitable for America to “fix” obesity related ailments than to prevent them. A partial list of industries that stand to lose if people actually begin to eat right, stop gaining weight and stop getting sick -

* Junk food manufacturers (over 100 billion dollars in annual revenues)
* Weight Loss (tens of billions of dollars)
* Supplements (tens of billions)
* Healthcare (over 100 billion dollars annually in obesity related treatments)
* Fast food establishments (over 300 billion dollars)

Not even the first lady can stand up to these numbers. Doubtful if the president can.

Anthro said...

I think you are absolutely right. I fear that the Obama Administration (and Washington DC in general) are hopelessly linked to policies that do not interfere with profits (which go to shareholders after all).

Just as Obama's answer to single payer or Medicare for All turned into a minor tinkering with the present system, "Let's Move" will turn into some minor modifications in school lunches and more phony packaging claims by the food industry.

I hate to be so gloomy, but the profit motive is so built-in to our culture by now, that any attempt to curb it is seen as treason.

sandrine F. Cassidy said...

It seems to me that it is in nobody's interest that Schools and mainstream America switch to unprocessed and healthier foods. Who will then absorb the huge corn overproduction ? I find it hard to convince my son's schools director to switch off the cans and go to fresh ingredients while this is the way she eats and it becomes a personal issue then. It is like using drugs. I has to be something you force people to do until they like it and see the benefits and then do it on their own.

My Year Without said...

Love how your posts are packed with information. I linked to this post today for my "recent news" information.

Second Cloud On The Left Farm said...

I think we all have something to learn from Canada's graphic label warnings on cigarette packaging! If we can't regulate we should be able to educate.

We put warning labels on toys, cleaning agents, medicines, movies and even get a color warning before we board a plane. If we can get Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign off the ground... it would have to start with a true education of what long term over consumption of sugar, fats and salts are doing to our children! Big Food will always be engaged in our school foods and industrial food system.

Barbara Ruth Saunders said...

I, too, have a problem with framing the issue around "obesity." Weight gain typically comes at the end of a process that has damaged the way the body is functioning. Not enough nutrients, too many calories, too much of certain chemicals, and lack of physical activity combine to cause physiological change of which disequilibrium in body composition is only one.

People can lose weight without truly healing the physiology, and setting the body on the right course may take a while to manifest in cosmetically desired weight loss.

Julia said...

Congress needs to stop subsidizing corn and soybean. Once that happens and only then can we fight everything from obesity to fast food to cage-free animal husbandry etc.
Let's start a movement to raise awareness about the trickle-down-effect of subsidized food.

Anonymous said...

Excuse my venting but after reading a Minnepolis paper story on obesity, I am upset.
All diseases are genetic environmental interactions. The obesity epidemic is the world most common genetic/environmental interaction. Dr. Albert Stunkard study on adopted twins and obesity proves genes determine BMI for INDIVIDUALS. Dr. Richard Pratley's study of Type 2 Diabetes in Pima Indians says enviromental factors play a huge role in obesity in POPULATIONS. Geoffrey Rose stated populations are not like individuals but they do intersect.
Michelle Obama is taking the standard model of health promotion and glamorizing it for media attention. Population based prevention has a very limited effect and can't fight a genetic environmental interactions effectively without massive changes in environment and behavior. People can't make choices they don't fully understand. The President and First Lady both KNOW the link between our environment and genes is the science of epigenetics. It can't be anything else. What triggers and suppresses gene expression? Chemistry. Diet. chemicals like BpA? Sugar! Insulin? Stress hormones like cortisol?
Once the public and GOP get wind of genomic and scientific revolution about to slam into thirty years of bad policy it is all out ideological war that might determine the fate of billions of people. Socioeconomic status is the single biggest determinant of health. With food shortages utilitarian choices might have to be made. Chuck Grassley said it best "We are nine meals away from revolution" and "We need to get rid of fat people."
Sarah Palin's death panels might a reality if we don't face childhood obesity with informed choices. We are looking down the barrel of two guns called obesity and famine. I don't belief we are a democracy anymore because nobody has told the public about the science of obesity or the dilemmas it will cause. Silence means natural selection for millions of people. What has if someone knows you are eating rat poison and doesn't tell you to stop? Multipy up obesity's transgenerational response (the see the Overkalix census studies on nutrition and longevity) then tell me silence is good for the economy and pro-life. I have left several research threads in this blog. I double dog anyone to pull up the Overkalix census studies, Pratley and Stunkard papers and disagree with me. I have the Broad St. for obesity in my hands and can't politically get anyone to act. If John Snow had faced the same bureaucratic b.s. in 1856 London would have been a dead zone. Please pull on the research threads. I don't want credit just action.