Sunday, September 05, 2010

Why is McDonald's listed a resource for Childhood Obesity Awareness Month?

I am not a fan of any sort of "awareness" month as I find the concept trivializes important health issues. Are we only supposed to care about heart disease, diabetes, etc, during that one month of the year? And I rarely see anything of substance come from the month-long activities, just the usual ineffective educational campaigns, instead of meaningful public policy reforms. Plus many issues tend to crowd themselves into certain months, so it all becomes background noise. September is one such month. Among other causes (e.g., "cholesterol education"), September has been proclaimed "Childhood Obesity Awareness Month" by Congress and President Obama.

When I first heard about about it, I though, oh god, please no ribbons or walks. Thankfully, no signs of either, yet. But there are still plenty of early indicators that the idea is doomed to failure. For one, the Presidential Proclamation itself is pretty milk-toast when it comes to policy change. For example, referring to the report of the President's Task Force on Childhood Obesity:
The report outlines broad strategies to address childhood obesity, including providing healthier food in schools, ensuring access to healthy affordable food, increasing opportunities for physical activity, empowering parents and caregivers with better information about making healthy choices, and giving children a healthy start in life. I invite all Americans to visit to learn more about these recommendations and find additional information and resources on how to help children eat healthy and stay active.
All of those ideas have been on the table for years, but little progress has been made. And he's inviting Americans to find resources to help kids eat better? Not exactly cutting-edge. Finally, nothing even mentioning the role the food industry plays in undermining parents, no matter how much the First Lady tries to "empower" them with her Let's Move campaign.

Then I looked a little further to find the official website for Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, which seems innocuous enough at first. The American College of Sports Medicine is listed as the main contact, which tells me the emphasis is more on physical activity than on healthy food, or god forbid, food marketing. Other partners listed include the NAACP, Richard Simmons' Ask America, American Society for Nutrition, and various other private health companies and associations, an odd lot to say the least.

But what caught my eye was the list of "external resources," which includes some usual suspects such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, American Academy of Pediatrics, and Let's Move, along with several other government agencies. Then inexplicably, at the very bottom, is a link to "McDonald's Stage M," which appears to be a video game site intended for young children to "learn" about nutrition. As described on the fast food giant's main website:
McDonald's is proud to introduce Stage M - an exciting and entertaining place for kids, where they can watch music videos all about the fun and great taste of fruits and vegetables. The whole family will want to sing along! Kids can even put themselves in a music video!
So many exclamation points, it must be fun!

What a coup for the company most closely associated with contributing to childhood obesity to get listed as a resource, right after the US Department of Agriculture, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. This same list can also be found on the website for Congresswoman Marcia L. Fudge of Ohio, who sponsored the resolution that established the event. Kudos to her for taking leadership on this issue, but perhaps her staff is unaware that she is giving McDonald's some great PR? (I tried emailing the American College of Sports Medicine to find out how much money McDonald's paid for the privilege, but have not yet heard back.)

Other industry players are also jumping on the "awareness" bandwagon. For example, the American Beverage Association, the powerful trade association for Coke and Pepsi et al, blogged about it last week under the silly headline, Childhood Obesity Awareness: What a Difference a Month Can Make! Without a hint of irony, ABA tell us to:
Get informed. Get connected. Get involved. That’s the message on the “Healthier Kids, Brighter Futures” website. There, families and individuals can learn how taking even small steps can make a big difference in their lives. National, state and local leaders, as well as businesses and organizations, are encouraged to observe the month.
National, state, and local leaders are encouraged to observe the month, like it's a religious event? Because they cannot possibly be encouraged to actually do anything about the problem, since then Big Soda will just pour even more lobbying dollars into obstructing public policy for real change.

So brace yourselves for the rest of September, as your local school or neighborhood group just might take up the mantle to "observe" Childhood Obesity Awareness Month. And then, on October 1, everyone can go back to whatever they were doing before, having observed and been made aware. Problem solved.

9/10/10 Update: See also Melanie Warner's scathing piece on this topic, Childhood Obesity: The Food Industry's Latest Marketing Ploy.


Anonymous said...

Oh Michelle, the irony is just sad. I try to talk to younger Moms about this and the awful think is that at this point many of the Moms have grown up with this "system" of eating away from home much of the time. They are "busy" and "rely on" fast food and the toys to "amuse" their children who spend a lot of time in a car seat--not to mention the constant stream of videos which are everywhere from the minivan to the doctor's office. How many times does a child need to see X Disney animated film? Even Sesame Street and other children's programming on PBS is sponsored by Kelloggs and other corporations. Many of my more well off friends brag about the returns they are earning on MacDonald's "even in a bad economy". I ask them how they feel about getting rich off the misery of childhood obesity. The usual response is, "that's up to parents to deal with". As if being a parent exists in a vacuum where you look at your child once a month and say, "you are not going to eat anything that is advertised" and the child says, "sure, Mom".

I think the corporations have already won the battle because not only have they secured their place in the minds of an entire generation, but they have also associated themselves with our very way of life--they are corporations, corporations are capitalists, capitalism is good and is the American Way, ergo; MacDonalds, PepsiCo, Coke, et al are as American as apple pie.

I don't own any stock in ANY food companies and beyond that, I'm not sure what I can do. If the First Lady has to choose a name for her cause that obscures the real culprit from the outset, I don't see that we are going to make much progress against a multi-pronged, well-funded propaganda machine as is Big Food. We need one of these companies to go BANKRUPT for lack of profits, and then others to follow. Marion Nestle often writes that she is not opposed to corporations making a profit (I hope I have paraphrased appropriately), but I think we need to rethink this and react more aggressively to this assault on our national health. What if millions of people divested themselves of these stocks in a short period of time? I think that's where I'd like to put my efforts.

Michele Simon said...

I agree it can seem daunting. The stock issue is complicated. I am guessing that anyone who has a retirement plan may own some stock in a company they don't like. The solution is not really in individual stock decisions, but in changing policies that make it so easy for companies like McDonald's to make profit, like USDA subsidies.