Monday, December 26, 2011

Yes Virginia, Food Reformers Love Food (Decadent Recipe Included)

As a longtime, food reformer (I got my start trying to improve the food in our school district), people expect strange things from me. And often their comments about food are really weird.

I've had numerous folks in my town stare in my grocery shopping cart to see what I've purchased. One time I had some cookies in my cart and one woman admonished me for advocating for the removal of trans-fat laden, high calorie, giant Otis Spunkemeyer cookies from our schools while purchasing Newman's Fig Newtons for my family. Another time, a friend saw me at our local A&P and expressed shock that I would shop there at all. She assumed that food reformers only bought food from CSA's, Whole Foods and other natural food stores.

I had another friend approach me as our family shared two desserts at a local restaurant and remark on the fact that he didn't think we ate dessert! Anytime I have a dinner party or other gathering at my home, there are always one or two folks who express astonishment that I served something they think is "unhealthy." For the misguided, unhealthy apparently includes: anything with olive oil, any dessert other than fresh fruit, spinach quiche, homemade hummus (I kid you not), chicken cacciatore, baked sweet potato "fries," macaroni and cheese and avocado in (horrors!) an olive oil vinaigrette.

While I've patiently explained to those who've asked that just because I'm a food reformer doesn't mean I live on a steady diet of tree bark and tofu (although tofu is a family favorite in a stir fry and added to soups), that concept is tough for many to grasp. They believe that if you are advocating for a healthier food environment, you must be: a lover of deprivation; a full-blown nut job who would love to ban cupcakes from schools and donuts from office meetings; and, a Birkenstock-wearing, hair-dye eschewing ex-hippie socialist dedicated to putting an end to Halloween trick or treating, candy canes, the Easter Bunny and Dairy Queen.

When a group of us formed a nutrition committee in our town to discuss improvements to school food, our superintendent, who had not yet met with us or spoken with us, derided our committee as a bunch of loonies who were "trying to take away his Twinkies." When I met with our school district's assistant superintendent to discuss our thoughtful suggestions for improving school food, her eyes widened when I walked in her office wearing a stylish pants suit, high heels and make-up. I was later told she expected me to be the female equivalent of Jerry Garcia.

So, a word to the wise. Food reformers love food. Really, we do! We cook it. We eat it. We talk about it. We even obsess over it and sometimes overdo it. We eat dessert, periodically (even things that have no nutritional value and just taste good), but not after every meal or in-between. We eat plenty of healthy fats like olive oil and avocado in appropriate serving sizes. We believe kids should be given small treats periodically and on holidays, like we were given as kids, but not a steady diet of junk 24/7 like most kids get today. We love Halloween, but we usually offer less damaging treats like small chocolate bars and small toys to our ghost and goblin visitors. We bake and bring appropriately sized cupcakes to our children's classroom on their birthdays, but we don't also serve chips, candy, and sugary drinks at the party. We shop at all the same stores you shop at, only we try to purchase mostly fresh produce, lower-fat meats, whole grains and low-fat dairy products that are the staples of our family's diet. We visit fast-food restaurants a couple of times a year (like when we're on a long drive to the beach). And, we have treasured, decadent family recipes for special occasion treats, like my mother-in-law's Pineapple Bread Pudding recipe I've included at the end of this post, that we make a few times a year.

So, the next time you see me in the A&P with a box of cookies in my shopping cart, or enjoying the molten chocolate cake at a local restaurant, please don't act surprised, confused or even miffed. We're eating the same way an earlier, much healthier generation ate - my grandmother's generation -- a steady of diet of mostly home-cooked, real, whole, healthy foods with periodic treats. That's probably a good part of the reason why my grandmother managed to live a spectacularly healthy life, with no hospital visits (except for childbirth) until she was 86 years old. Shouldn't we all have that chance?

Martha's Pineapple Bread Pudding

2 20oz. cans of crushed pineapple in their own juices (drained)
1 stick of melted butter
1 cup of sugar
4 eggs, beaten
8 slices of cubed bread (crusts included)

Combine drained pineapple, butter, sugar, eggs and cubed bread in a larger bowl until well-moistened. Pour into a baking pan or dish, sprinkle generously with cinnamon on top.

Bake, covered, at 325 for 1 hour. Uncover the pudding for the last 15 minutes to allow browning.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Occupy Big Food's First Rally in Zuccotti Park: The Start of a Grassroots Movement?

Food reformers took to the streets on Saturday as Occupy Big Food (OBF) the brainchild of Kristin Wartman, a food writer and nutrition educator and Erika Lade, a graduate student in NYU’s Food Studies Program, held its first rally in New York City. The group of approximately 60 people, myself included, held picket signs aloft and chanted “Whose Food? Our Food,” as we marched into Zuccotti Park (or Zucchini Park as it was renamed by one marcher’s sign). Police stationed at the park entrance asked OBF marchers to remove the sticks holding up our picket signs before we entered. Apparently there had been an incident in the park earlier in the day and the police were taking extra precautions -- although I would have bet my daughter’s college fund that no one in our group would ever do anything more violent than pare the skin off of an eggplant. Once inside and surrounded by throngs of supportive Occupy Wall Street protesters, several OBF speakers spoke of the group’s desire for a healthy, sustainable, affordable local food system.

On its website, Occupy Big Food describes itself as a movement to take our food back and out of the hands of just a few large corporations. This rally couldn’t have come at a better time as anger is high due to the recent Congressional decisions to declare “pizza is a vegetable" in our nation's school cafeterias and to give its blessing to french fries and tater tots as daily school fare at the behest of deep-pocketed corporate lobbyists for ConAgra, Schwan, McCain Foods and J.R. Simplot. Indeed, corporations have long been determining what types of food Americans can purchase in schools, supermarkets, restaurants and other public arenas, while slowly reshaping the American palate to prefer high fat, high sugar and high sodium fare, as former FDA Commissioner Dr. David Kessler explained in his book, The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. These often irresistible, chemically concocted, processed foods reap the largest profits for Big Food at the expense of every American's health.

OBF speakers included the co-organizers; NYU Professor of Food Studies and Nutrition, Marion Nestle; Bill Granfield, president of UNITE HERE Local 100 which represents over 6,000 food service workers in the NY area; the host and creator of the Let’s Get Real cooking show on the Heritage Radio Network, Chef Erica Wides; and CUNY PhD candidate Ryan Ehrat, whose work focuses on the food sovereignty movement. Topics ranged from the dire health implications of the corporate takeover of our food system to food justice to fare wages for food system workers to farm animal welfare to educating Americans on the benefits and joys of cooking. OBF understands the need for Americans be made fully aware of how a few large corporations determine what each of us put into our mouths every day -- something that Big Food, to date, has skillfully manipulated into a misleading "personal responsibility" mantra.

Other rallies are planned for the future as organizers are promising "a series of events, activities, and direct actions to critically engage with our food system."

OBF is a ray of hope as what has been desperately lacking so far in the food movement is an energized, powerful grassroots voice demanding system and policy change. To grow, OBF will need to clearly define its mission and goals as well as advocate for a reasonable list of policies. Saturday's rally was a promising beginning. I hope that OBF can begin to unite our sometimes fractious food reform movement into a powerful citizen-fueled uprising, urging Americans to take back control of one of our most basic needs -- healthy, affordable food.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Vendor Rebates Limit Choices to Junk and More Junk

Like many food reformers, I started out as an aggravated mother in our local schools. Ten years ago, we had just moved to a new school district and I couldn't believe the array of junk food in school vending machines, nor could I understand the low quality of school food served in the cafeteria.

It didn't take long to discover part of the problem. Vendor rebates. Our school district contracted with Aramark. When concerned parents began to work with the Aramark food service director in an effort to make healthy changes, we ran into an obstacle. Even though Aramark is one of the largest food service companies in the nation and was sourcing its food supplies through a huge company called Sysco, our food service director had limited choices.

When parents asked to make suggestions for snacks sold, we were given a catalog from Sysco that listed everything the school district could purchase. The selection was appalling -- all junky, processed foods that were manufactured by the same companies. When we asked why Aramark couldn't purchase other healthier snack options -- and we provided a list of suggestions that were easily available in any grocery store -- we were told they just couldn't get them. The catalog was our only choice.

A little investigation revealed why our choices were so slim -- vendor rebates. Aramark was apparently limiting its purchases to certain brands to take advantage of volume discounts and vendor rebates. This practice was also in play when it came to ordering other food items and ingredients for the school district and we found that alarming. While we believed the rebates were being passed on to the local taxpayers, that hardly was comforting. The quest for vendor rebates limited the school district's choices to mostly unhealthy, processed foods.

Vendor rebates, whether the savings are passed on to the school district or not, are damaging. School food workers should be able to purchase the best foods and ingredients from any vendor and not be forced to compromise the health of our kids for what amounts to legalized kickbacks.

That was ten years ago. Perhaps things have changed within Aramark. I certainly hope so. But clearly, the practices of vendor rebates and volume discounts still plague our nation's schools. I am thrilled that NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is investigating this practice and I hope that his findings help wake up complacent school administrators who have let this practice go on for far too long at the expense of our children's health.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Feeling the Heat: Chain Restaurants Reformulate Unhealthy Fare Due to Good Nutrition Policy

Policy change has been a shared goal of all food reformers. So why haven’t advocates seemed to notice or acknowledge that several recently implemented policies are stimulating healthy changes to restaurant fare?

For example, take the recent menu reformulation pledge from the Darden Restaurant Group, parent company of the Olive Garden and Red Lobster, which serves over 400 million meals a year. With the First Lady, Michelle Obama, in attendance, Darden announced that it will reduce its calorie and sodium footprints by 10 percent in five years and 20 percent in ten years through menu reformulation, portion resizing and removing/introducing menu items.  It also pledged to provide more healthy choices on its children's menus and make low-fat milk, and fruits and vegetables, the default for every kid’s meal, rather than soda and French fries.

While the media focused exclusively on Michelle Obama’s role in this announcement (and indeed the First Lady deserves high praise for issuing hard challenges to the food industry and for creating an extraordinary level of awareness about childhood obesity), it’s clear that Darden and other chains are really feeling the heat due to the impending implementation of federal menu labeling policy in 2012.

The menu labeling law, which was passed as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in 2010, requires that food establishments with 20 or more locations provide calorie information on menus and menu boards. Additional nutrition information such as sodium, total fat, sugars, and carbs must be provided in written form, upon request. Similar laws have been passed and implemented around the nation and our organization, the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance (NYSHEPA), spearheaded successful campaigns to get these laws enacted in a number of New York State locales including Albany, Westchester and Ulster counties.

While the main purpose of menu labeling is to provide consumers with calorie counts at point of purchase to help them make informed choices, many health advocates have long believed that the true value of the law will lie in the reformulation it spurs. That belief is panning out.

Ever since the first menu labeling law was implemented in New York City in 2008, revealing astronomical calorie counts for single serve items, chain restaurants have been on the defensive and reformulating menu items to make them healthier. Significant reformulation has been noted at Starbucks, Applebee’s, Quiznos, Taco Bell, Denny’s, Uno Chicago Grill, Le Pain Quotidien, Dunkin’ Donuts, KFC, McDonalds, Cosi and Romano’s Macaroni Grill, which managed to squeeze an eye-opening 880 calories out of just one salad. Nutrition Information Services, an Orlando-based consulting firm that analyzes and reformulates restaurant recipes, reported an 80 percent jump in its business in 2008 and 100 percent in 2009, which can be directly traced to local menu labeling laws enacted in New York City and Seattle.

The impending federal menu labeling law and the passage of several local ordinances that set nutrition standards for kid’s meals sold with toys, have also spurred additional restaurant pledges and reformulations. This past July, as part of a National Restaurant Association initiative, 19 large restaurant chains — including Burger King, Chili's, IHOP and Friendly's — pledged to promote and include healthier options on their children’s menus like fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy. And in August, McDonald’s introduced, with great fanfare, its new Happy Meal, which boasts apple slices, a smaller portion of fries and a lower calorie count.

In light of these developments, it’s safe to say smart food and nutrition policies, or even the threat of such policies, can force healthy changes in industry. Looking back, it’s hard not to recall that the restaurant industry has fought almost every nutrition policy tooth and nail over the past decade, arguing that self-regulation is far preferable to legislation. Now that policy has backed them into a corner, chain restaurants are doing what large, deep pocketed corporations do best – they are in a self-congratulatory PR frenzy and hopeful that consumers view their brands favorably for their so-called voluntary changes.

Now I know what some food reformers have been saying about these chain restaurant pledges. Why does Darden need 10 years to make these changes and can we trust them to keep their promise? These changes aren’t nearly enough -- a 20 percent calorie reduction in the Red Lobster’s Crispy Calamari and Vegetable Appetizer (1520 calories) isn’t going to make a big enough dent. A McDonald’s Happy Meal with a handful of apple slices and fewer fries still isn’t a healthy meal. My answer to those criticisms is you’re right. But when you are working to change the practices of multi-billion dollar public corporations that answer to shareholders, you have to be satisfied with incremental change. No chain restaurant in its right mind is going to slash calories and sodium 50 percent in a short period of time and risk losing customers. As far as trusting Darden and others, I think the old saying is trust but verify. With menu labeling about to be implemented it’s going to be a lot harder for Darden to ignore its pledge.

It’s very rewarding to see healthy menu reformulation motivated by policy. And I think these positive changes are only the beginning. Food reformers must continue to work for the passage of additional food and nutrition policies like nutrition standards for foods marketed to children, reallocation of farm subsidies, sugary drink taxes, and federal nutrition standards for kids’ meals sold with toys. No doubt these laws will drive more far more change than industry self-regulation ever will.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Let the Big Ag Reframing Begin

I've been issuing periodic warnings via Twitter that food and agriculture reformers better pay extremely close attention to the new, deep pocketed industry coalition, the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance (USFRA), which asserts on its home page: "For too long the voice of farmers and ranchers has often been missing in the conversation about where food in America comes from." Personally, I haven't noticed their voices missing but perhaps some have been unable to speak out because they've been so busy hiding deplorable conditions, unnecessary subsidies and unsafe/unhealthy practices that have, sadly, become mainstream in our food and agricultural system. However, any alliance that starts out with a $30 million budget means business and will be a force to be reckoned with. The USFRA's goal, obviously, is to begin to reframe the debate about food production and agriculture in this country -- a debate that up until now has been dominated by food and agricultural reformers.

If you want to get a sense of how a professional advocacy marketing campaign works, take a look at the email below that I received today from Kyle Trompeter of the Zocalo Group in Chicago, on behalf of the USFRA. A quick visit to the agency's website reveals that it specializes in tapping the power of word of mouth strategies that are sustainable to achieve three objectives:

1. Fuel positive recommendations
2. Combat negative recommendations (they do have their work cut out for them there)
3. Ensure that the net sum of your entire marketing mix leads to powerful recommendations by your industry's most influential consumers and experts.

"Do you know how you're being talked about and recommended?" asks Zocalo on their home page. Big Ag does and they don't like what they've been hearing. That's why they've hired this agency and likely other agencies that specialize in print, TV and radio advocacy marketing to begin to sway public and thought leader opinion towards views more to the liking of Big Ag. Unfortunately for us, these types of campaigns work, as I witnessed first hand as a soda tax advocate in New York. When Big Beverage came to town with their slick, emotionally manipulative, deep pocketed advocacy marketing campaign to derail the proposed penny per ounce soda tax, we wound up losing.

I won't be reaching out to Kyle and "participating in the conversation" since I've been doing that for years and it's been going pretty well from my vantage point. Rest assured, however, that Kyle will get plenty of takers willing to contribute "useful insights" and who will soon be preaching the gospel of USFRA, as the alliance moves to purchase allies and silence potential critics in the same way Big Tobacco and Big Food are doing. Food and agriculture reformers will need to vigorously counter the messages that come out of the USFRA campaign -- quite frankly, to compete they will need substantial funding and their own professionally created counter-marketing. But since just about every food and agriculture reform funder currently refuses to fund advocacy marketing or counter-marketing campaigns, I'd say we're in trouble. You need to fight fire with fire, and food and ag reformers are holding a tiny matchstick while industry wields a $30 million blowtorch.

Hi Nancy,

My name is Kyle Trompeter and I work for a word-of-mouth marketing agency, Zocalo Group.

We’re partnering with the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, a newly formed alliance consisting of a wide range of prominent farmer and rancher-led organizations and agricultural partners, in an effort to help them connect with the public in an open discussion about food production and agriculture. As part of what we’re doing, we’re speaking with people who would likely have valuable points of view on this. And, we thought you would be able to contribute some useful insights, given your reputation in the food industry.

We are working toward holding events and activities in the coming months so we’d love to talk with you soon. Would it be possible to touch base for a few minutes by phone to get a sense of your thoughts on agriculture, give you a heads up about what the USFRA is doing and maybe discuss your interest in participating in the conversation?

For more information about the USFRA, please visit us online at:

Thanks in advance for your consideration.

Kyle Trompeter

Kyle Trompeter
Zócalo Group | 200 E. Randolph, Suite 4200 | Chicago, IL 60601
Phone: (312) 596-5906| Mobile: (708) 655-2809 | Email:

Thursday, July 28, 2011

McChange Doesn't Come Easy

Under intense pressure from health advocates, and with the kind of fanfare that only a gazillion dollar multinational company can muster, McDonald's has announced that it will soon include apple slices and a significantly smaller serving of french fries in its Happy Meal. The fast food giant will also cut sodium by 15 percent in all of its food by 2015. While most Americans may find this about as scintillating as cleaning out the cat litter box, the media and public health community clearly found it fascinating based on the number of published articles and blog posts, and the lively discussion that emerged on Twitter.

So just how significant is the McDonald's announcement? And how should the health community react? Before I discuss this, let's clarify a few points:

1) McDonald's, one of the largest and most successful corporations in the world, is only interested in the health of its customers as it relates to its own bottom line.
2) The Happy Meal changes are the result of unrelenting pressure exerted by child health advocates including bills passed in San Francisco and Santa Clara County that set nutrition standards for kids' fast food meals sold with toys, as well as a lawsuit from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
3) Even with apple slices, a smaller french fry portion and reduced sodium, the Happy Meal is still not a healthy meal.

So how should health advocates react when fast food behemoth and industry leader McDonald's blinks? Should we praise this step forward, even if it's a small step? Here's how I think we should handle this type of announcement:

First, let's pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. Concern about childhood obesity and unhealthy fast food are at an all time high thanks to food reformers' efforts. The fact that the First Lady has made childhood obesity her signature issue is testament to the growing success of the healthy food movement. And now, a multinational corporation that made its fortune selling unhealthy junk food is touting nutritional improvements in an attempt to mend its image, maintain market share and stave off public health policy that would regulate what it can sell and advertise to kids. This is progress.

Second, we should acknowledge these positive changes, even if we feel they are inadequate. Whether McDonald's initiated the change in order to pre-empt policy or entice health conscious families back to the golden arches isn't the point; we're constantly criticizing McDonald's and other fast food chains so it's only fair that we acknowledge positive changes. And by acknowledgment, I mean just that -- let's save the effusive praise for when McDonald's makes its Happy Meal the truly healthy meal our kids deserve. I thought that the First Lady's muted and measured comments -- she called McDonald's plan "positive steps" toward her Let's Move goal of ending childhood obesity -- set the tone perfectly. Mrs. Obama also added that she "looks forward" to the company's "efforts in the years to come." That's a diplomatic way of saying you're going to have to do a lot better.

Finally, let's keep up the pressure on McDonald's by continuing to highlight the shortcomings of the Happy Meal. If McDonald's had seen fit to include a non-fried vegetable and a whole wheat bun for the hamburger, and had made low-fat plain milk the default beverage rather than soda, this would have been a momentous announcement. Health advocates will not rest until McDonald's and other fast food restaurants have made meaningful changes (via either internal or external policy change) including a truly healthy kids' meal and an agreement to end to marketing to children.

Jan Fields, the president of McDonald’s USA, said of the new Happy Meal: “McDonald’s will always try to do the right thing, and we know we can help make a difference in our communities.” I think McDonald's will continue to do the right thing -- but only if health advocates hold their feet to the fire. Kindling, anyone?

Thursday, June 16, 2011

How Sweet It Is! Jamie Oliver Spurs Flavored Milk Ban in the LAUSD

What happens when you add ridiculous amounts of sugar to different foods to get kids to eat them? It creates a preference for sugary foods that will likely last a lifetime.

That’s why so many food reformers were thrilled to hear that the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has decided to no longer offer cartons of flavored milk (e.g. chocolate and strawberry) which can contain up to 8 teaspoons of added sugar. As one of the largest school systems in the nation, we can only hope that they will inspire other school districts to do the same.

Added sugars are a staple of today’s processed and packaged foods, particularly those marketed to kids. Frosted Flakes, Fruit Loops and Cocoa Krispies have been horrifying public health advocates and parents for decades. Take a look at the sugar content of kids’ yogurt, frozen waffles, fruit drinks, instant oatmeal and applesauce. And here’s a shocker: some bottled spaghetti sauces have as much sugar as a granola bar or a pop tart.

Why do we need all this sugar in our food? If you ask Big Food and Big Beverage, they’ll tell you they are responding to consumer demand. Truth is the food industry has made the unilateral decision to add sugar to almost every processed food Americans, and in particular our kids, consume regularly. If we didn’t crave sugar before, we do now!

If you think sugar (or its other names like sucrose, fructose, lactose, and glucose) isn’t a problem in our children’s diet, think again. An American Heart Association study found children as young as 1-3 typically consume around 12 teaspoons of sugar a day. By the time a child is 4-8 years old his sugar consumption is, on average, a whopping 21 teaspoons a day. And teens, ages 14-18, are practically drowning in a sugary diet, averaging about 34.3 teaspoons daily. That is over four times the recommended amount!

Numerous food reformers have been warning about added sugar in milk for years. Ann Cooper, director of nutrition services for the Boulder Valley School District in Louisville, Colorado, which has banned flavored milk says “chocolate milk is soda in drag.” Diligent parent groups around the country have asked for flavored milk to be removed from schools but have come up against strong opposition from the Dairy Association, which is a deep-pocketed and very powerful lobbying organization.

But it wasn’t until British TV chef Jamie Oliver came to Los Angeles with his “Food Revolution” TV show and Internet petition, that the ground truly began to shift. On one episode of "Food Revolution" Oliver filled a school bus with white sand to represent the amount of sugar LAUSD students consume weekly in flavored milk. "If you have flavored milk, that's candy," he told the Associated Press.

Thank you, Jamie Oliver, for bringing your in-your-face brand of activism to America! Sometimes the only way to beat back a powerful industry and a complacent bureaucracy is with a bit of showmanship and judicious use of all kinds of media. Food reformers, take note.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

School buses no place for junk food ads

Published in the Albany Times Union, Friday, June 10, 2011

New York's school buses could become traveling billboards if state Sen. Mark Grisanti, R-Buffalo, and Assemblyman Steven Englebright, D-Suffolk County, get their way. They have introduced a bill that would amend education law to allow school buses to carry advertising.

Alcohol and tobacco advertising would be prohibited, of course. But New York's children, who are in the midst of an obesity epidemic, could be subjected to a blizzard of ads for sugary cereals, fast food, soda and other products -- courtesy of your local school board. Cities with populations of more than a million (New York City) would be exempt from the law, but the rest of the state could opt to collect this ill-advised advertising revenue.

It's understandable that schools are searching for new revenue sources while state education funding is being reduced. But it makes no sense to allow districts to hawk unhealthy foods or other products to New York's children. The state has the 18th-highest rate in the nation of overweight youths (ages 10-17) at 33 percent, according to Trust for America's Health. And 80 percent of overweight/obese adolescents become overweight/obese adults, putting them at an increased risk for chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, asthma, hypertension and some cancers.

To put into perspective how excited junk food and fast food marketers must be to have a possible new venue for reaching almost every kid in the state, note the enormous sums they already spend to target children. A 2006 Federal Trade Commission study of 44 companies found that food and beverage marketing to children and adolescents totaled some $1.6 billion. Approximately $870 million was spent on food marketing directed to children under 12.

New York's potential new school bus marketing would be visible to a captive audience of children at least twice daily. Plus, products advertised on a school bus will have that school district's implicit endorsement, whether the district intends it or not.

Marketers in all industries are keen to reach young audiences because this targeted marketing works. A Yale Rudd Center study that focused on McDonald's, which advertises heavily to the toddler to teen set, found 40 percent of parents report that their child asks to go to McDonald's at least once a week, while 15 percent of preschoolers ask to go every day.

Over the past decade, thanks to increased awareness and stronger nutrition standards, school districts across the state have been eliminating junk food and junk food advertising, and turning down contracts with companies like Pepsi and Coca-Cola.

It would be a huge step backward to create a new opportunity for predatory marketers to get to kids during the school day.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood notes that advertising on buses won't even make a dent in schools' deficits.

School bus advertising in a Colorado Springs district with more than 27,000 students only generates $40,000, according to the news website By selling ad space on its 103 buses, the Thompson School District in Colorado generated about $3,000 a year -- about 20 cents a student, according to School Transportation News. Ypsilanti, Mich., stopped placing ads on school buses when revenue fell far short of projections, Advertising Age reported.

We urge legislators to take a stand against predatory marketing by opposing S.3229/A.7701. Our schools should be free of advertising. We should not try to fund them at the expense of our children's health.

Nancy Huehnergarth is director of the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

MyPlate Mania: Much Ado About Nothing

Anyone who thinks that the USDA's new food icon, MyPlate ( is going to change the eating habits of Americans, needs to have his head examined.

While there's no question that the new USDA food icon is a vast improvement over the jumbled and confusing pyramid, MyPlate's usefulness is limited, just like its predecessors. It will be used as a teaching tool at schools -- never mind that the entire concept of MyPlate is currently contradicted in school cafeterias, vending machines and stores. It will be slapped on the front of processed food packaging by Big Food and Beverage, deep pocketed industries eager to capitalize on any association with health -- but Americans will take little notice. And it will likely be trotted out by the USDA and Let's Move for ceremonial occasions.

In the meantime, even if MyPlate were staring them in the face (which is unlikely), Americans' plates will continue to be piled high with anything but produce and whole grains because current federal and state policies (or lack thereof) discourage their production and consumption. The "do as I say, not as I do" philosophy of behavior change doesn't work for anyone, not even the federal government.

If we want Americans to truly change the way they eat, we need to change our food system and environment through federal policy. Let's start by enacting some of the food policies that have been bandied about for years: school nutrition standards (which passed in December 2010 but the House GOP has threatened to defund); nutrition standards for foods marketed to children (a set of strong voluntary standards were recently proposed by an Interagency Workgroup, but the House GOP and Big Food are working feverishly to scuttle them ); menu labeling (which passed in 2010 and has shown promising results but the House GOP has threatened to defund); the sugary drink tax (which has thrown Big Beverage into a philanthropic frenzy in order to silence potential critics and kill legislation); and, the most important policy change of all -- reworking our entire farm subsidy system. Until these policies are in place, the American dinner plate will look less like MyPlate and more like the average plate carried back from a buffet table.

Food icons are nice, filled with bright colors and have made for days of exciting media coverage. But they aren't the answer to our problems. Let's focus on what will really make a difference -- enacting thoughtful and meaningful policies that make healthy food affordable and create a healthier food environment for all Americans.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

In the War against Big Food, Money and Messaging Trump Science

“We need to bring as much rigor to the fight (for a healthy, sustainable food system) as we have to the science.” That perceptive statement came from a public health leader, Dr. Robert K. Ross, President and CEO of the California Endowment at the May 4th Future of Food conference in Washington D.C., and raises a critically important point.*

The world of public health and its funders can be very genteel. When a policy like the soda tax fails to get enacted due to strong, well financed opposition from industry, public health advocates want more science. They often believe that the new data collected, the indisputable conclusions drawn, or the attendant policy recommendations will finally convince policymakers and the public to take action. But, as Dr. Ross pointed out, if you think you are in a policy debate and the other side thinks it is in a fight, you are not going to come out too well. And so far in this food fight, public health is pretty bruised and battered.

The reality is, that when up against deep-pocketed, no-holds barred opponents, like Big Food, Big Beverage and Big Agriculture, public health’s focus on science and evidence is easily trumped by money and messaging. If public health advocates don’t start rolling up their sleeves and using some of the same tactics used by industry, progress in this fight to create a safe, healthy, sustainable food system is going to move more slowly than a teenager asked to clean his room. Science and “being right” are no substitute for a strong, strategic and powerful movement. Public health groups and their funders must find ways to pool resources and utilize costly professional advocacy marketing, P.R. and grassroots movement development. Sweeping policy change can only be driven by a powerful professional messaging campaign and a grassroots movement.

Industry hires the top messaging agencies and consultants, and devotes big money to framing their messages and successfully reframing ours. Witness the millions (certainly well over $100 million) Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper/Snapple, et al., have spent on a nationwide campaign to fight soda taxes. In New York State alone, the soft drink industry spent $13 million in just the first six months of 2010, to successfully fend off a penny per ounce soda tax. What did that money buy? A slick, professional ad campaign that was created by the same advocacy marketing firm that brought us the infamous “Harry and Louise.” And what were public health professionals doing to convince legislators and the public that a soda tax was necessary for the health of consumers? They were distributing fact sheets filled with meticulously researched statistics and dozens of studies that have identified sugary drinks as a leading cause of our obesity epidemic -- ammunition which fell flat compared to Big Beverage’s professional and misleading messaging campaign.

Studies and evidence get steamrollered by marketing, messaging and deft public relations. While good science should be the basis of any public health campaign, it can't be the only strategy. Dr. Ross’ fine speech should act as a wake up call to the entire public health community and our funders. I propose that a public health conference called "How to Fight Industry at its Own Game" be organized in order to change the way public health advocates, professionals and their funders view their responsibilities and teach them some of the tactics they need to win.

We must fight fire with fire. Let's light the match!

*Thank you to Marion Nestle for highlighting Dr. Ross' speech in her blog, Food Politics.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

In Denial? Health Organizations that Take Money From Pepsi, Coke, etc. are Damaging the Healthy Food Movement and Public Health

Ever since sugary drink taxes were proposed, Big Beverage has been in a philanthropic frenzy trying to co-opt as many groups as possible.  Witness recent Big Beverage donations to:
o     The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for obesity prevention programs – I kid you not! ($10 million was promised if Philly did not pass a sugary drink tax – they didn’t and the donation was made)
o     The American Academy of Family Physicians for a partnership with Coca-Cola
o     Save the Children ($5 Million from PepsiCo) and the promise of a major grant donation from Coca-Cola, all to get the organization to stop advocating for passage of sugary drink taxes (they stopped advocating).

It's time for a thoughtful discussion among advocates on whether health, wellness, food security and other organizations should accept funding from junk food purveyors like Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, McDonald’s or Frito Lay, or if it’s best to accept no funding at all from the food/beverage industry.  

It's clear that Pepsi and other beverage brands use their philanthropy to purchase allies and silence potential critics, just like Big Tobacco did.  What's amazing is how many important organizations that do good work are in denial on this issue. The most common defense is that there is much good work that can be done -- even with tainted, special interest money -- and that accepting funding from a company like PepsiCo doesn't impact their organization's advocacy positions on sugary drinks. That doesn't hold water, as the Save the Children debacle demonstrated and it's hard to believe that health organizations and others would not feel obliged to "tone down" their rhetoric on topics that might make PepsiCo withhold future donations.

In addition, by accepting funding from a company like PepsiCo, health organizations and others are simultaneously promoting a brand that markets junk food and unhealthy sugary beverages – specifically targeting kids, teens and low-income consumers.  Is that the message they want to deliver to their constituents?

No doubt there is a dearth of funding for the projects and advocacy that many well-intentioned groups are involved in. However, deep pocketed companies like Coke, Pepsi and McDonald’s are well aware of the lack of funding and that’s what makes their “philanthropy” so devious.  They know that if they dangle funding in front of cash-starved health/wellness/food security and other groups, they will find many takers – and simultaneously silence potential critics of their products and marketing practices.     

The current, hyper-publicized Pepsi Refresh campaign that is attracting hundreds of small projects in an online competition -- a good number of which are health related -- is just another high profile way for Pepsi to use its deep pockets to improve its image and silence critics. Pepsi is hardly the only brand blanketing America with philanthropy designed to win friends and influence legislators. According to a marketing executive who is extremely cognizant of beverage and fast food industry marketing to the Hispanic and African American communities, “In minority communities fast food and Big Soda have aligned with practically every recognized advocacy and aspirational non-profit organization.”

That’s not by accident. It’s clearly a carefully thought out strategy (remarkably similar to the strategy of Big Tobacco) to try to buy silence from as many organizations, market segments and communities as possible. 

In my opinion, organizations that accept this type of tainted, special interest money not only damage their credibility but are complicit in presenting Big Beverage/fast food purveyors (and their products, by association) as benevolent benefactors. This sets back the healthy food movement, probably by years, and that's exactly what companies like PepsiCo are banking on.

Sunday, April 10, 2011


Welcome to the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance new blog spot.  We'll be blogging about policies and practices to improve healthy eating and active living, food marketing, the food and beverage industry, and other related topics.