In This Issue

Editor's Note


Seattle Schools Ban Junk Food and Sodas


Back to School:
Junk Food Equals
Big Profits, Minus
Healthy Kids


Get Rid of Those Empty Calories with 'Nutri-wash'


Recommended Reading


Upcoming Appearances


Seeking Local Stories








































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  September 2004   

Editor’s Note: This month, due to a hectic travel schedule, Informed Eating is somewhat abbreviated in the news department. But in exchange, you get two recently published commentaries. Look for the October issue for a full report on two legal conferences on obesity—one sponsored by advocates and the other by industry.


Seattle Schools Ban Junk Food and Sodas

The Seattle School Board has unanimously approved a far-reaching set of nutrition-related policies that will ban sales of all foods containing high levels of sugar and fat and prohibit exclusive beverage contracts. “These policies make it clear that we are determined to provide our students with healthy food options,” said School Board Vice-President Brita Butler-Wall. “We are committed to providing an environment at each school that maximizes students’ ability to learn and succeed.” The policies also give direction to the school meal program to offer fresh, local, organic, non-genetically-modified, non-irradiated, unprocessed food, whenever feasible. These policies are amongst the strongest in the country.
Source: Seattle School Board press release, 09/03/04
See the nutrition committee’s full report:


Back to School: Junk Food Equals Big Profits, Minus Healthy Kids
Michele Simon, Pacific News Service, 09/03/04

As children head back to public schools this fall, they will face not only the usual challenges brought on by shrinking budgets, but also an increasing onslaught of junk foods, thanks to a powerful industry that profits from peddling fat and sugar. In May, a national survey by the Center for Science in the Public Interest revealed that 75 percent of beverages and 85 percent of snacks sold in school vending machines were of poor nutritional quality -- soda, chips, cookies and candy. While nominal nutrition standards apply to federal school meals, anything goes for all other foods, which are sold mere steps away from the lunch line.

Over the last two years, increased focus on the dual epidemics of childhood obesity and diabetes has resulted in a groundswell of action. All across the country, parents, teachers, policymakers and others are organizing to take back their schools from the clutches of Coke and Fritos. But mega-corporations don't go down without a fight, not with so much money at stake. Schools mean big business to the junk food industry, not just for the cash they generate, but also for the opportunity to create lifelong brand loyalty among an impressionable and captive audience.

Last year, California lawmakers tried to ban the sale of sodas in schools, but heavy lobbying from the soda industry resulted is an exemption for high schools where, not coincidentally, most soda is sold. The bill's author, California state Senator Deborah Ortiz, says she was very disappointed with the compromise, but "the food and beverage industries are extremely powerful." Testifying against the bill was the California-Nevada Soft Drink Association, a trade group whose members include Coca-Cola and PespiCo. Just last month, California tried to set nutrition guidelines on foods sold outside the federal meal program. But thanks to last-minute lobbying by the Grocery Manufacturer's of America (GMA), that bill failed by just five votes, despite having the support of 80 nonprofit organizations. Only five groups opposed the measure -- all of whom profit from selling junk food to kids.

GMA's 140 members enjoy annual sales of more than $500 billion in the U.S. alone, and consist of major food corporations such as Kraft, Nestle and PepsiCo. GMA is on record as opposing virtually every state bill across the nation that would restrict the sale of junk food or soda in schools. A state as large as California represents huge business, so a defeat there would be devastating both for the lost profits and because of the potential domino effect. Similar stories have been repeated all across the country – industry lobbying resulting in either weakened or killed legislation. For example, in Indiana, Coca-Cola sent a team of five lobbyists (including a regional vice president) to defeat a bill to restrict soda sales in schools. Also, the state of Washington recently tried to pass legislation that would have banned selling junk food and soda in schools, but 17 revisions later, the bill just requires that schools have some sort of food policy. Last year in Connecticut, advocates attempted to pass nutrition guidelines, but also wound up with a watered-down law, thanks to high-paid lobbying by both Coke and Pepsi.

While all this political activity is going on behind the scenes, these companies -- who care enormously about their corporate image -- are also spending large sums of money on public relations in the wake of increasing criticism. PepsiCo has created an entire website ( devoted to convincing the public that it cares about children's health. Coca-Cola touts its "Model Guidelines for School Beverage Partnerships," which recommends not offering soda in elementary schools during the school day, but after school is fine. Does Coke care less about children's health after school? At one high school in Maine where soda becomes available after the bell rings, the bus is delayed because kids are busy getting their fix before they board.

No matter how hard the soda and junk food companies try to position themselves as "responsible corporate citizens," the truth is they care more about the health of their own bottom lines than that of children. Parents have enough to worry about when they send their kids back to school. The last thing they need is the junk food industry influencing their children to adopt a lifetime of poor eating habits.

Get Rid of Those Empty Calories with 'Nutri-wash'
Michele Simon, San Francisco Chronicle, 09/08/04

Years ago, the environmental movement coined the term "greenwashing" to describe how corporations use public relations to make themselves appear environmentally friendly. Now, nutrition advocates need their own moniker for a similar trend among major food companies -- call it "nutri-washing." With rising rates of obesity, diabetes and other diet-related health problems, Big Food has responded to increasing public criticism with announcements of improved products, along with assertions of being "part of the solution" -- knowing full well they are a cause of the problem.

Most of the criticism is leveled at companies who especially target children, with McDonald's taking much of this heat. So, in recent months the fast-food giant (though it denies any connection) has taken pains to prove it really does care. For example, in April, with Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson on hand, McDonald's announced a "Balanced Lifestyle Platform," promising to provide nutrition information on Happy Meals and volunteering to "take an industry-leading role" to work with HHS on "the best way to communicate nutrition information to consumers." Do we really want the folks who invented the 600-calorie Big Mac and supersizing volunteering for this job?

The company also pledged to distribute free copies of an educational program called "What's on Your Plate, featuring Willie Munchright" that teaches "elementary schoolchildren the importance of physical activity and making smart food choices." What a great way to get free marketing in schools while increasing brand recognition among impressionable children. Also, the common tactic of promoting physical activity is cleverly designed to deflect attention away from children eating too much of industry's unhealthy food.

Other food conglomerates feeling the heat are also jumping on the corporate responsibility bandwagon. For example, PepsiCo has created a Web site ( devoted to convincing you that it cares about children's health. Yet the site claims that "kid-friendly" school snacks such as Doritos and Pepsi are "part of a balanced diet." The food and beverage giant also recently announced the introduction of the Smart Spot symbol, a small green circle that will carry the message "Smart Choices Made Easy" and will appear on such "healthy products" as Diet Pepsi and Baked Lays. But labeling a food healthy does not make it so. Even diet sodas and baked chips have virtually no nutritional value and only serve to divert consumers' attention from wholesome foods.

Some nutrition advocates have applauded such efforts as an attempt by industry to make improvements, however minor. But to praise companies for such "reforms" too easily rewards them with the positive public-relations spin they seek. Also, these voluntary actions deliberately attempt to deflect any mandatory government regulations -- for, as we are starting to learn, voluntary acts can easily be rescinded. In June, for example, less than a year after Kraft Foods vowed to reduce portion sizes in the name of public health, the company said it would change nutrition labeling instead. The company did release recently "100 calorie packs" of Oreos, Chips Ahoy and Cheese Nips, thus turning reduced portion sizes into a clever marketing gimmick. But 100-calorie junk food is still junk. Similarly, a 2002 promise by McDonald's to remove artery-clogging trans-fats from its cooking oil, which gained the company a tremendous amount of free PR (including a front-page story in The Chronicle), has yet to be fulfilled.

Moreover, these PR efforts don't tell the whole story. Behind the scenes, industry is lobbying hard to undermine public-health advocacy, especially that aimed at improving the nutrition environment of public schools. For example, last year, California lawmakers tried to ban the sale of sodas in schools, but heavy lobbying from the soda industry resulted in an exemption for high schools (where, not coincidentally, most soda is sold). Just last month, California legislation that would have set nutrition guidelines on foods sold in schools was narrowly defeated, despite having the support of 80 health and education organizations, thanks to last-minute lobbying by the junk-food industry.

Educated consumers won't be fooled by all the slick packaging and press releases. They know better than to rely on the processed food industry for healthful eating. The highest quality nutrition is found in whole foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, not in cans or boxes. That's how nature planned it, long before Big Food intervened. No matter how hard they try to convince you otherwise, the food and beverage industries have only their own best interests at heart. The rest is just a bunch of nutri-wash.

Recommended Reading

On the heels of Susan Linn’s “Consuming Kids,” comes “Born to Buy: The Commercialized Child and New Consumer Culture”, by Juliet Schor (Schribner: 2004). This book is an excellent expose of how the advertising industry studies, and then exploits children’s buying preferences, even to the point of observing how they bathe. Still more disturbing is Schor’s original research into how children exposed to heavy doses of media and consumer culture suffer from low self-esteem and other psychological effects. “Born to Buy” is a must read for anyone concerned about children’s health and wellbeing.

Upcoming Appearances

Michele Simon will speak on state legislation at the “Second Annual Conference on Legal Approaches to the Obesity Epidemic,” September 17-19, 2004, at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston. For more information, visit:

Michele Simon will speak on, “Is Junk Food the Next Tobacco” at New York University Law School, Monday, September 20, 2004, 6:30pm, Snow Dining Room, Vanderbilt Hall, 40 Washington Square South. This event is free and open to the public.

Michele Simon will speak on “The Politics of Food Safety” at City College of San Francisco’s Concert and Lecture Series, Monday, October 18, 2004, at 11am. Ocean Avenue Campus, 50 Phelan Avenue, Science Bldg., Rm. 136. This event is free and open to the puplic.

If you’re at least 55 years old, you can sign up for a series of Michele Simon’s upcoming lectures starting October 20 on the politics of food. Hosted by San Jose State University’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, topics include the politics of nutrition advice and connecting the personal to the political. For details, see visit:

Michele Simon is available for lectures and workshops in your community and can speak on a variety of food policy topics.  For more information, visit:

Seeking Local Stories of Battling Big Food

CIFC is currently gathering stories at the state and local levels where the food industry is attempting to block nutrition advocacy efforts. Many states, cities, and counties around the country are trying to pass nutrition-related legislation (e.g., limiting junk food in schools or imposing soda taxes), but the food industry is lobbying hard to either stop or curtail these efforts. If you know about any specific fights, we want to hear about them. We are also interested in stories related to soda contracts in schools. Please contact Michele Simon at: or (510) 465-0322. Thank you!

The Center for Informed Food Choices in a nonprofit organization that advocates for a whole foods, plant-based diet and educates about the politics of food.

CIFC is proud to make Informed Eating available as a free public service. Unlike industry publications, it is not underwritten by corporate sponsors. We would greatly appreciate your support for this newsletter and our other important policy work. For more information or to make a tax-deductible donation, please visit or call (510) 465-0322.

Informed Eating is written and edited by Michele Simon. You may contact her at Thank you!


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