NOTE: The views expressed here belong to the individual contributors and not to Princeton University or the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Guess Who’s Coming to Breakfast? And Lunch, and Dinner?

Jenn Onofrio, MPA

Earlier this month the Food and Drug Administration issued guidelines for food manufacturers on recommended decreases in the level and frequency of sugar-sweetened cereals marketing to children. The guidelines, though voluntary, remind us again of the pervasive place of the food industry at the kitchen table.

Ask a parent who has tried to get her child to eat the boring oatmeal instead of the Cocoa Puffs before dashing out the door—the task is daunting to say the least. Food research tells us, though, that this is not entirely a matter of children’s taste buds being so normalized to sugar that they just hate oatmeal—it’s also the product of millions of dollars of targeted advertising that reminds children over and over again through television and internet commercials that Tony the Tiger is “grrrrrrreat!”

According to the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, “food marketing to youth has been shown to increase preference for advertised foods; consumption of advertised foods; overall calorie consumption; requests to parents to purchase advertised foods (known as “pester power”); and snacking.”

The food industry has literally wedged itself between parents and children.

I studied food policy this fall as part of a working group preparing recommendations for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Childhood Obesity Group. We researched and visited programs all over the country that were tackling the issue of childhood obesity. I was fortunate to be able to meet with leadership in San Francisco about the hot topic of the time, the so-called “Happy Meal ban.” What was amazing was that it wasn’t a ban at all, but rather a requirement that fast food companies could not hand out a free toy with a meal that contained over 600 calories (with more than 35% derived from fat), and more than 640mg of sodium. It was actually an incentive for companies to increase their nutritional standards. Make it healthier, and add a serving of fruit and veggies. So long as they complied, they could reintroduce the toy.

But that wasn’t the argument heard ’round the world. Frustrated parents accused the government of trying to take the happy out of the meal. Parent after parent protested, “But my kid wants the Happy Meal.”

Without greater regulation of marketing standards, we’re getting our battles confused. Kids (with the help of the food industry) rebel against adults; adults rebel against government initiatives because of what their kids want. (Conveniently, it’s also what the food industry wants.) It creates a lot a noise and not a lot of change in the fact that the childhood obesity rate has tripled since 1980. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 17% of American children are obese.

Regulation won’t cure everything. Our research found that the most effective programs implemented a mix of bans, incentives, and education. To complement this troika, it may be time to think about setting one less place at the kitchen table. Tony the Tiger, you’re out.

Editor’s Note: You can read more about this subject in “Tipping the Scales: Strategies for Changing How America’s Children Eat,” a WWS graduate policy workshop final report presented to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Available here.

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