Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory: A Children’s Story about Processed Food

Back in the spring of 2011, Slate magazine decided to “crowd-source” the problem of childhood obesity by asking readers to submit their own solutions to this difficult problem. I blog daily about children and food on The Lunch Tray and over the years I’ve written literally thousands of words about childhood obesity and poor nutrition. But until I sat down to write my own entry for the Slate contest, I’d never really asked myself what I personally would do to improve the status quo.

After a lot of thinking, I narrowed down my list of suggestions to three: (1) enacting legislation to curb the food industry’s rampant advertising to children; (2) implementing widespread nutrition and cooking education; and (3) what I called “inoculation”—i.e., showing kids how the fast food, packaged food and soda industries quite deliberately manipulate them into choosing their products—entirely for profit and at the expense of their own health. (I was gratified when my essay was chosen as one of the winners by a panel of experts.)

Of my three proposals, the third—inoculation—struck me as the most important by far. Currently Big Food spends almost $2 billion annually to market mostly unhealthful products to children, yet children lack the intellectual ability to view these advertisements critically, making them particularly vulnerable targets. Nonetheless, past efforts to rein in these advertising messages—such as the purely voluntary guidelines proposed in 2011 by a federal interagency working group (including the FTC, FDA and USDA)—have failed under intense industry lobbying.

If we’re not going to be able to limit children’s food advertising messages, then it’s all the more critical that we teach kids to view those messages with the appropriate skepticism. But in the two years since I wrote the Slate piece, I’ve never come across an illustrated storybook with this “inoculation” message for younger children, i.e., pre-K to elementary.

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So a few weeks ago I decided to try to create my own such story. Starting with a fun, bouncy rhyme about a factory owner who gets a town hooked on his processed food, I created illustrations on my iPad, imported them into iMovie, and then rounded up my friends and family members to play the various characters. Rachel Buchman, a talented professional singer, voiceover artist and Grammy semi-finalist, agreed to narrate the story for free because she was so supportive of its message.

One homemade video is no match for $2 billion in industry advertising expenditures, of course, but with the power of the Internet and the accessibility of tools like iMovie, it’s my hope that more people will create health-promoting, “inoculation” messages like mine. In the meantime, I hope you’ll take a few minutes to watch “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory” with your kids, and that you find it a useful springboard for important conversations about marketing, processed food and healthful eating.

Originally published on Food Day.

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View Comments (3)

  1. Annie Mo
    Friday, June 7th, 2013
    I'm not sure it is good for our cause to celebrate someone exploiting children in a rant about the evils of "processed" food when we can't honestly draw sharp lines of demarcation around what is "processed" and what is not. This is just the sort of mushy ideology we are increasingly being called out for. We haven't a leg to stand on when we let extremists speak for us in these terms and invoke the visage of innocent babes to create an illusion of uber humanitarianism on our part. Extremism does have limits. Aren't we better than this?
  2. Friday, June 7th, 2013

    It's demonstrably true that diet rich in whole foods, particularly fruits and vegetables, is more beneficial to our health than a diet of highly processed foods. The fact that reasonable minds might differ on the precise definition of "highly processed" doesn't negate that basic truth.

    Meanwhile, advertising messages promoting fruits, vegetables and/or healthful eating are virtually nonexistent in the average child's day. Yet, according to the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, "on television alone the average U.S. child sees approximately 13 food commercials every day, or 4,700 a year; and teens see more than 16 per day, or 5,900 in a year. The food products advertised most extensively include high-sugar breakfast cereals, fast food and other restaurants, candy, and sugary drinks. "

    So in what way is attempting to correct this imbalance a form of "extremism?" What strikes *me* as extreme is spending $2 billion a year to promote generally unhealthful products to an impressionable and vulnerable audience.