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.