by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Obama

Dec 20 2012

Beyoncé’s Pepsi deal: Implications for Let’s Move!

In response to my post a couple of days ago about Beyoncé’s Pepsi deal, a reader asks:

How do you think the White House should respond to this deal.? Beyoncé’s song is featured on White House website and a Let’s Move! t-shirt she designed is given to kids at official events.  Will kids make the connection?  Can all that dancing overcome the effects of eating too much?

Let me deal with these one at a time.  First, the problem this poses to Let’s Move!  People concerned about the role of sugary sodas in childhood obesity are appalled by Beyoncé’s deal with Pepsi, so much so that the Center for Science in the Public Interest has organized a campaign to call on her to reconsider.   Unless she does reconsider and withdraws from the deal, her continued involvement with Let’s Move! raises exactly the questions you ask.

Beyoncé has just put Let’s Move! in a painfully awkward conflict of interest.  On the one hand, Let’s Move! promotes healthy diet and activity patterns to reverse childhood obesity.  On the other, its celebrity spokesperson is now going to be pushing Pepsi.  Beyoncé’s image will now appear on Pepsi cans—I hope not wearing her Let’s Move! tee shirt.

What the Beyoncé deal points out is the hazard of partnerships and alliances between public health groups and food companies.

In April 2011, the Washington Post reported that “A White House spokesman said that the first lady and her team weren’t involved in the making of the clip but that Beyonce is “a great example of how people can get involved with ‘Let’s Move!’ and bring this message to more and more young people.”

But now this.  The White House has long maintained that food and beverage companies are not going away and that it is obliged to work with them.  Maybe, but on whose terms?  I see Beyoncé’s $50 million partnership with Pepsi as a slap in the face to Let’s Move!  It puts Let’s Move! in the position of promoting Pepsi or asking Beyoncé to withdraw from having anything to do with it.

As for how kids are going to figure this out:  All kids know is that Beyoncé is a gorgeous mega-star, one who is able to perform vigorous dance moves in astonishingly high heels, and that Pepsi helps her do so or at least doesn’t hurt.  Beyoncé is especially a role-model for African-American kids.  Pepsi targets its marketing to African-American kids.  This looks like a serious conflict of interest.

On the balance between diet and activity: How I wish that physical activity alone could reverse obesity.  Physical activity is terrific for health (I’m not sure about those stiletto heels) but it’s rarely enough to reverse obesity on its own.  To lose weight—and, these days, to maintain healthy weight—kids absolutely must eat less and eat better.

Beyoncé has done Michelle Obama no favor by getting involved with Pepsi.  This is a mess, and not one that can be gracefully fixed.

Dec 10 2012

The edible White House: and what a swell (political) party!

I was lucky enough to be invited to a holiday reception at the White House last week to see the decorations up close and the President and First Lady from a distance.

Never mind the Christmas trees in every room.  The gingerbread house!*

 

It comes with its very own garden, hoop houses, beehive, and kale:

The candy vegetables were not to be eaten.

But the cookies most definitely were.

Here’s to a happy, healthy, and well nourished holiday season!

*Obama Foodorama explains how White House pastry chef Bill Yosses and his colleagues created this masterpiece.

Nov 7 2012

The election is over (whew): what’s next?

My post-hurricane Manhattan apartment still does not have telephone, internet, or television service, so I followed the election results on Twitter.

I knew that President Obama had been reelected when the Empire State Building turned on blue lights.

What’s ahead for food politics?

With the election out of the way, maybe the FDA can now:

  • Release final food safety rules (please!)
  • Issue proposed rules for front-of-package labels
  • Issue proposed rules for revising food labels
  • Require “added sugars” to be listed on labels
  • Define “natural”
  • Clarify “whole grain”
  • Release rules for menu labeling in fast-food restaurants

Maybe the USDA can

  • Release nutrition standards for competitive foods served in schools

And maybe Congress can pass the farm bill?

As for lessons learned:

  • The food industry has proven that it can defeat consumer initiatives by spending lots of money: $45 to $50 million on California’s Proposition 37 (GMO labeling), $4 million on soda tax initiatives in Richmond and El Monte.
  • But if enough such initiatives get started, food companies might get the message?
The election leaves plenty of work to do.  Get busy!
Nov 3 2012

Tuesday’s election: Food politics at issue

My monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle deals with the implication of Tuesday’s election for food politics.

Q: Neither of the presidential candidates is saying much about food issues. Do you think the election will make any difference to Michelle Obama’s campaign to improve children’s health?

A: Of course it will. For anyone concerned about the health consequences of our current food system, the upcoming election raises an overriding issue: Given food industry marketing practices, should government use its regulatory powers to promote public health or leave it up to individuals to take responsibility for dealing with such practices?

Republicans generally oppose federal intervention in public health matters – witness debates over health care reform – whereas Democrats appear more amenable to an active federal role.

The Democratic platform states: “With prevention and treatment initiatives on obesity and public health, Democrats are leading the way on supporting healthier, more physically active families and healthy children.”

Policy or lifestyle?

In contrast, the Republican platform states: “When approximately 80 percent of health care costs are related to lifestyle – smoking, obesity, substance abuse – far greater emphasis has to be put upon personal responsibility for health maintenance.”

At issue is the disproportionate influence of food and beverage corporations over policies designed to address obesity and its consequences. Sugar-sweetened beverages (sodas, for short) are a good example of how the interests of food and beverage corporations dominate American politics.

Because regular consumption of sodas is associated with increased health risks, an obvious public health strategy is to discourage overconsumption. The job of soda companies, however, is to sell more soda, not less. As a federal health official explained last year, policies to reduce consumption of any food are “fraught with political challenges not associated with clinical interventions that focus on individuals.”

Corporate spending

One such challenge is corporate spending on contributions to election campaigns. Although soda political action committees tend to donate to incumbent candidates from both parties, soda company executives overwhelmingly favor the election of Mitt Romney.

As reported in the Oct. 12 issue of the newsletter Beverage Digest, soda executives view the re-election of President Obama as a “headwind” that could lead to greater regulation of advertising and product claims, aggressive safety inspections and characterizations of sodas as contributors to obesity. In contrast, they think a win by Mitt Romney likely to usher in “more beneficial regulatory and tax policies.”

As for lobbying, what concerns soda companies is revealed by disclosure forms filed with the Senate Public Records Office. Coca-Cola reports lobbying on, among other issues, agriculture, climate change, health and wellness, and competitive foods sold in schools. PepsiCo reports lobbying on marketing and advertising to children. Their opinions on such issues can be surmised.

But Coca-Cola also says it lobbies to “oppose programs and legislation that discriminate against specific foods and beverages” and to “promote programs that allow customers to make informed choices about the beverages they buy.”

Lobbyists

Soda companies have lobbied actively against public health interventions recommended by the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity in 2010 and adopted as goals of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation.

Implementation of several interventions – more informative food labels, restrictions on misleading health claims, limits on sodas and snacks sold in schools, menu-labeling in fast-food restaurants, and food safety standards – has been delayed, reportedly to prevent nanny-state public health measures from becoming campaign issues.

To counter New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 16-ounce cap on soda sales, the industry invested heavily in advertisements, a new website and more, all focused on “freedom of choice” – in my mind, a euphemism for protecting sales.

Soda tax

Although the obesity task force suggested that taxing sodas was worth studying, the American Beverage Association lobbied to “oppose proposals to tax sugary beverages” at the federal level. The soda industry reports spending more than $2 million to defeat Richmond’s soda tax ballot initiative Measure N, outspending tax advocates by 87 to 1.

In opposing measures to reduce obesity, the soda industry is promoting corporate health over public health and personal responsibility over public health.

Supporters of public health have real choices on Tuesday. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Let’s Move will get another chance.

Aug 17 2012

To ponder over the weekend: What to do about corn and biofuels

Think about this over the weekend.

Among the other consequences of the current drought—along with the ruin of this year’s corn crop—is a complicated political battle over who gets the corn.

The players:

  • Corn producers: Want high prices.  Don’t care whether meat or ethanol producers get the corn.  Note: Many own their own ethanol refineries.
  • Meat producers: Want the corn at low prices.  Do not want corn grown for ethanol.  Want the ethanol quota waived.
  • Ethanol producers: Want the corn at low prices.  Want to keep the quota.
  • International aid agencies: Want corn to be grown for food and feed, not fuel.  Want the ethanol quota waived.

The ethanol quota:

Three big industries—corn agribusiness, industrial meat, ethanol—plus international agencies have a stake in the U.S. corn crop.

How should the Obama administration handle this?

  • Waive the ethanol quota?
  • Keep the ethanol quota?
  • Do nothing?
  • Do something else?  If so, what?
Apr 28 2012

Reuters: How the White House wobbled on childhood obesity

I am in Brazil at meetings of World Nutrition Rio 2012 but was deluged yesterday by links to a lengthy Reuters’ Special Report: How Washington went soft on childhood obesity.

In an e-mail, Reuters explains that its report is about how food and beverage companies dominate policymaking in Washington, doubled lobbying expenditures during the past three years, and defeated government proposals aimed at changing the nation’s diet.

  • The White House, despite First Lady Michelle Obama’s child obesity campaign, kept silent as Congress killed a plan by four federal agencies to recommend reductions to sugar, salt and fat in food marketed to children.
  • Corporate lobbying last year led Congress to declare pizza a vegetable to protect it from a nutritional overhaul in the school lunch program.
  • The Center for Science in the Public Interest, widely regarded as the lead lobbying force for healthier food, spent about $70,000 lobbying– roughly what companies opposing stricter food guidelines spent every 13 hours.
  • The food and beverage industry has a near-perfect record in political battle even while health authorities link unhealthy food to the child obesity epidemic.
  • During the past two years, each of the 24 states and five cities that considered “soda taxes” has seen the efforts dropped or defeated.

Reuters Investigates also has a video about how the food industry fought back when the White House sought healthier school lunches and Congress directed federal agencies to set nutrition standards.

Readers of this blog may recall my post last December fretting about the White House pullback, and the vigorous denial the next day by White House senior food policy advisor Sam Kass.

I attributed White House caution to the upcoming election.  Reuters does too, apparently, and so does the New York Times

If the First Lady is to make real progress on Let’s Move, she needs all the support she can get.  This might be a good time to send a note to the White House strongly encouraging more vigorous action on methods to address childhood obesity.

Feb 6 2012

Happy 2nd Birthday Let’s Move!

On the occasion of the two-year anniversary of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign, it’s time to reflect again on what the campaign means for the White House, for childhood obesity, and for the food movement.

A year later, I summarized some of the campaign’s accomplishments.  From the beginning, I’ve been impressed with its smart choice of targets: to reduce childhood obesity by improving school food and inner city access to healthy foods.

I’m reminded of the political savvy that went into the campaign by an editorial in The Nation (February 6), “America’s First Lady Blues.”  In it, Ilyse Hogue writes about Michelle Obama’s careful treading of the fine line between marital independence and submission, using Let’s Move! as an example.

Hogue praises Mrs. Obama’s choice of a target that looks “soft,” but is anything but:

In an effort to fit Michelle’s role into a traditional profile, the media constantly reminds us that her work is on presumably soft subjects, primarily her hallmark cause to end childhood obesity…Slurs aside, what critics miss is that this campaign is not aimed at soft targets.

The food and beverage industry is a powerful lobbying force, spending nearly $16.3 million in the 2008 cycle to defeat initiatives—like a “soda tax” and limits on aggressive advertising aimed at kids—that would encourage a healthier diet and thus cut into its massive profits.

To tackle childhood obesity, we’ll have to confront complicated issues of race, class, entrenched corporate power, and access to healthy food.

Indeed we will.  Childhood obesity is a focal point for issues of social justice.

Happy birthday Let’s Move!  And many more.

Dec 7 2011

White House insists “eat better” is still part of Let’s Move

I got a call yesterday from Sam Kass, the senior policy adviser on Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move staff, objecting strongly (an understatement) to my post about her new physical activity initiatives.

I interpreted her speech as a pullback from healthy eating initiatives.  “Eating better” is demonstrably bad for business.  The food industry much prefers “move more.”

Mr. Kass says no pullback was intended.  Instead, he said, this is an expansion of Let’s Move into another one of the program’s five essential “pillars.”

Pillars?

I did not recall anything about pillars.  I went to the Let’s Move website. Sure enough, there they are:

At the launch of the initiative, President Barack Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum creating the first-ever Task Force on Childhood Obesity….[Its] recommendations focus on the five pillars of the First Lady’s Let’s Move! initiative.

  1. Creating a healthy start for children
  2. Empowering parents and caregivers
  3. Providing healthy food in schools
  4. Improving access to healthy, affordable foods
  5. Increasing physical activity

In February 2010, Mrs. Obama discussed these elements in her speech launching Let’s Move, although without using the word “pillars.”  The word also did not pop up in her speech discussing the new activity initiatives.

When I need help with this sort of thing, I consult Obama Foodorama,  a treasure trove of information about food at the White House.  Here’s what Let’s Move has done and is doing about the pillars:

  1. Creating a healthy start for children: encouraging breastfeeding, Let’s Move Child Care, and other such programs
  2. Empowering parents and caregivers: MyPlate and MiPlato, front-of-package labeling
  3. Providing healthy food in schools: child nutrition legislation, Healthier US Challenge , salad bars in schools
  4. Improving access to healthy, affordable foods: combating food deserts, reducing the price of fruits and vegetables, encouraging gardening, and green markets
  5. Increasing physical activity: Presidential Active Lifestyle Award challenge (PALA) and the new initiatives

In the broader context of the Let’s Move pillars, a focus on physical activity makes sense.  It is an addition, not a substitution.

But Mrs. Obama’s speech did not frame it like that.  Instead, her speech implied that she had given up on healthy eating because it is too difficult (kids have to be forced to eat vegetables), leaving open the possibility that “eating better” is too hard to promote in an election year.

I wish her speech had placed the initiative in context.   Had it done so, it would not have been open to this kind of interpretation.

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