The following op-ed was recently published in numerous newspapers across the country through McClatchy-Tribune News Service.
The one-year anniversary of the first lady’s Let’s Move campaign to “end childhood obesity within a generation” was marked by celebratory speeches and fanfare – much of it generated by the White House itself.
It’s certainly true that Michelle Obama has been tremendously successful in summoning both the resources of her office as well as her own positive energy and enthusiasm to get the nation to focus its attention on this important problem. She also deserves credit for specific gains made in the past year, including championing school food and shining a light on the serious problem of “food deserts,” neighborhoods that lack even a basic grocery store, let alone a farmer’s market.
However, her highly touted “Let’s Move” campaign can make no claims of progress in combating the 800-pound gorilla in America’s dining rooms: Junk food marketing to children. While Mrs. Obama may have elevated the national conversation about childhood obesity, that discourse has actually been going on for almost a decade now. In 2006, a damning report from the Institute of Medicine on food marketing to kids called upon Congress to act within two years if industry made no significant improvements on its own.
In the wake of that threat, food companies made many promises to clean up their act; commitments were announced, self-regulatory bodies were formed. It all sounded very impressive. And yet recent reports coming out of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University as well as the government’s own Federal Trade Commission continue to document ubiquitous junk food and fast-food marketing to children.
Just take a stroll down the cereal aisle and you can find such childhood-obesity-inducing products as Cupcake Cereal and Cookie Crisp Sprinkles Cereal. Even Cheerios now comes in a chocolate variety. And these days, the ads aren’t just on TV. Our digital world contains endless marketing opportunities designed to reach kids wherever parents are not.
The first lady does mention this problem in her speeches, but her campaign is unable to tackle the issue directly, not only because Mrs. Obama has no policymaking powers but because to do so means threatening her husband’s business-friendly image. A sure sign of how small a threat “Let’s Move” is to the food industry is just how eager companies have been to jump onto its bandwagon.
Most successful was Wal-Mart, which recently gained Mrs. Obama’s endorsement of the company’s 5-year plan to improve the quality of its foods. Merits of the announcement aside, particularly troubling was that the first lady’s staff had been meeting in secret with Wal-Mart executives for months, negotiating the final – albeit vague terms of the plan.
The real question may not be if “Let’s Move” is going far enough, but what role is it playing in our national agenda on solving childhood obesity? Negotiated deals with the likes of Wal-Mart cannot become a substitute for actual policymaking. As messy and as imperfect as the democratic process is, it needs to be based on serious policy – not public relations gestures – to work well.
Meanwhile, it seems clear that the Obama administration is unwilling to seriously address junk-food marketing. One idea is to have the government suggest guidelines for industry. In December 2009, a taskforce of several federal agencies did just that – releasing draft nutrition guidelines on the marketing food to children. Apparently, this meager first step – it would be entirely voluntary – set off such alarm bells within the food industry that we haven’t heard a peep from the task force since.
Instead of meaningful government actions we have only “Let’s Move” and more voluntary industry promises. Solving the complex problems of childhood obesity won’t be solved with cute slogans or deal-making with the likes of Wal-Mart. To win this battle, we need our political leaders to take on seriously the politics of marketing junk-food to our children.
The following newspapers have published this op-ed so far:
The Kansas City Star
The Bellingham Herald
Plus about 20 others at last count.