USDA’s MyPlate Should Step Up to Marketing Plate

Wouldn’t it be great if eight-year-olds immediately thought of a banana, instead of a bag of chips, when they wanted a snack? In the decade that I have been involved with school food here in San Francisco, we have added salad bars in all our middle and high schools, replaced juice with fresh fruit at breakfast, and added fresh fruit daily at lunch.

But it is still a hard sell to get some kids to take and eat the fresh produce, because it just isn’t in the mindset of many inner city kids, who may rarely if ever see a fresh vegetable or piece of fruit at home, or in the corner store. Meanwhile they see thousands of commercials a year for junk food, which is available everywhere.

A few months ago, my son Max Schreiber humored me and my obsession with healthy food for kids; we made a video, entered it in the USDA MyPlate Fresh Fruit & Veggies Video Challenge, and won first prize. We were excited to win and had high hopes that our little video might be used in some way to help encourage kids to eat more fruits and vegetables. That, after all, was the purported goal of the competition–to show how people could add more fresh produce to their diets in an affordable way.

But when I contacted the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotions to ask if the videos would ever be shown anywhere apart from the Choose MyPlate website, I was told that while the videos would likely be used by other USDA departments, budget constraints prevented any further marketing efforts.

I mentioned this to a few of my fellow “eat better” advocates, including Chef Ann Cooper, currently nutrition services director for Boulder (CO) schools. She said, “Our children see over 10,000 commercials a year for junk food. Big Food spends $10-15 billion a year marketing junk food to kids. With that in mind, I strongly believe that the videos made for the MyPlate challenge should be as widely viewed as possible and used as positive food marketing for our children.”

Marion Nestle, Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at NYU, and author of the seminal work Food Politics, said “I am eagerly waiting to see how USDA uses the winning videos to promote MyPlate. There are loads of things USDA could be doing with them, and should.”

The proponents of healthy eating are vastly outmatched by Big Food’s spending. The above mentioned USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotions had a total budget of $6.5 million in 2010, and the National Cancer Foundation had less than $10 million to promote the 5 A Day campaign. That does not stack up well compared to the billions Chef Ann cites in the junk food marketers’ war chest.

Still, it seems like a no-brainer that when 142 lovingly crafted video entries encouraging people to eat more fruits and vegetables fell into the USDA’s lap, they would aggressively seek opportunities to promote those messages to the public as widely as possible.

It doesn’t have to be a budget buster, either. The National Association of Broadcasters says their member stations donate $7 billion a year in broadcasting time to public service announcements (PSAs), including promoting the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign in 2010-11.

Isn’t a public service announcement campaign a perfect fit for the USDA fresh fruit and veggie videos? The kids who really need to be carpet-bombed with the “eat healthier” message are not coming to the MyPlate website, but, as Chef Ann points out, they sure are watching TV commercials. Other outlets for PSAs include cable TV, movie theaters, in-flight entertainment, and in-store networks.

Although the issue of restrictions on the ability of government to advertise is murky, it’s not like using PSAs would be unprecedented. In spring 2009, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Federal Reserve was placing public service announcements in movie theaters in 14 states hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis, to warn consumers about foreclosure rescue scams and show them how to get help free. The weeklong campaign cost just $9,000 to produce the PSAs and place them in theaters.

While foreclosure scams and fast food marketing may sound worlds apart, in fact the similarities are eerie. The WSJ described the foreclosure situation this way:

As the U.S. government pours hundreds of billions of dollars into housing rescues, state and federal agencies have struggled to stop predators from targeting homeowners….The Fed’s ads come against a flurry of infomercials, billboards and door-to-door marketing from firms trying to attract customers who are confused by their options. “They’re everywhere–prime time, late night, radio, English, Spanish,” said Patricia Garcia Duarte, president of the nonprofit Neighborhood Housing Services of Phoenix. “They’re very slick and they really know how to market to vulnerable people.”

“We don’t have the resources in the nonprofit sector to do the same level of advertising,” she said.

Am I dreaming to think that someday we could see this in the WSJ:

As the U.S. government pours hundreds of billions of dollars into healthcare, state and federal agencies have struggled to stop junk food advertisers from targeting children….The USDA’s ads come against a flurry of fast food commercials, billboards and movie tie-ins from food companies trying to attract children. “They’re everywhere–prime time, late night, radio, English, Spanish,” said school food advocate Dana Woldow, founder of PEACHSF. “They’re very slick and they really know how to market to kids.”

“We don’t have the resources in the nonprofit sector to do the same level of advertising,” she said.

I did mention the idea of public service announcements to the person I spoke with at the USDA and was happy to hear that it would be discussed at an upcoming staff meeting. Many of the videos from the competition feature engaging children, including one of my favorites. No superhero-loving kid could possibly resist this compelling message, but first they would have to see it.

As Bettina Elias Siegel, whose The Lunch Tray blog is one of the most widely read platforms about kids and food, put it, “Studies show that most children aren’t getting nearly enough servings of fruits and vegetables each day, and they’re bombarded with billions of dollars of advertising from the makers of fast food, sugary cereals, and sodas. So anything we can do to level that playing field is critical. It would be a shame to let some compelling health messages–already vetted and approved by experts–go unseen if we could otherwise get them in front of kids.”

Originally published on BeyondChron
 

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