The Top Six Food Politics Lessons Learned in 2011

This hasn’t been a banner year for improving America’s food system, food environment or food policies. A look back demonstrates that not only have we failed to make any new progress in food and nutrition policy, but we actually appear to be moving backwards in some instances. Here’s why:

1. Congress is in bed with Big Food and under five layers of blankets- One of the most remarkable things food reformers learned this year was just how much influence deep-pocketed Big Food corporations exert over the current Congress. The answer – when it comes to proposed nutrition policy, if Big Food talks, Congress listens and does what industry wants – America’s kids be damned. Big Food successfully derailed or has worked overtime to weaken National School Lunch Program (NSLP) nutrition standards (pizza is a vegetable!), voluntary guidelines for foods that can be marketed to kids (see Marion Nestle’s insightful post on this development), the 2012 Farm Bill (a scary version of which was drafted behind closed doors) and federal menu labeling requirements. And the food industry is already taking aim at the rules being written by the USDA as mandated by the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act – rules that would improve the nutritional content of competitive foods (foods that are not sold as a part of the NSLP). 2012 should bring more of the same thanks to our anti-nutrition policy Congress.

2. The First Lady is a Strong Advocate for Food Policy, Except When We Get Close to an Election Year- Michele Obama’s wonderful Let’s Move! campaign to end childhood obesity has veered sharply away from supporting policies to improve the food environment for children (the First Lady was instrumental in getting the Healthy, Hunger Free Kid’s Act passed in 2010) to brokering voluntary agreements with food corporations and focusing on physical activity. Now there’s nothing wrong with voluntary agreements to improve nutrition – unless they’re in lieu of policy, which is the only truly sustainable way to improve our food system and food environment. The First Lady has been conspicuously and painfully silent as Big Food spent millions to successfully weaken the Healthy, Hunger Free Kid’s Act, attacked the IWG voluntary guidelines for foods marketed to kids (Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest has done a wonderful job of leading the fight to get these voluntary guidelines passed) and the Farm Bill was negotiated in secret. The closer we get to election year, the more Mrs. Obama seems to shy away from supporting policies that may inflame Big Food. She recently announced a new focus on getting kids to move which Michele Simon brilliantly questioned in “Sorry Mrs. O, but Jumping Jacks Aren’t Enough.” Will the feisty, policy-supporting Mrs. Obama, please come back in 2012?

3. Big Food Will Go to Great (and Humorous) Lengths to Try to Reframe the Message on Food Reform- If the health problems in this country weren’t so serious and costly, we could actually have a good laugh at some of Big Food’s more memorable attempts to reframe themselves as champions of a healthy, sustainable food system. Big Ag formed a new alliance, the United States Farmer’s and Rancher’s Alliance (USFRA), which introduced a new marketing campaign to mend its tattered image. Funny thing is that while USFRA describes itself as representing the average farmer, it appears that the groups’ funding this heartwarming campaign are mostly Big Ag concerns including Monsanto, Archer Daniels Midland, Dupont and dozens of Big Ag trade organizations, which are often at odds with the needs of the average farmer. In another wacky development, Andy Bellatti informed us of McDonald’s new “farmwashing” campaign, where America’s largest fast food corporation, in a fit of McChutzpah, tries to portray their menu as “farm to fork.” How about telling the truth, McDonalds? It’s Big Ag farm to factory to fork at the golden arches.

4. Big Food and Conservatives Have their Antenna Up for Any “Proof” that Food Policy Doesn’t Work- Food industry and conservative critics have jumped on a Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) report about participation decline in their school lunch program since healthier food replaced junk. These critics claim that the LAUSD experience proves that kids won’t eat healthier food and in the case of one conservative blogger, Michele Malkin, that the LAUSD experience is indicative of government waste and the “nanny state” (see Bettina Elias Siegel’s fine rebuttal). Similarly, critics gleefully report that the Seattle public school system may bring back unhealthy foods into their vending machines due to a drop in vending revenue, which hurts after-school programs. Reality-check time. Does anyone really think that Los Angeles’ and Seattle’s children who have been raised, since birth, on a steady diet of unhealthy junk and processed foods and are shockingly unfamiliar with vegetables, fruit, whole grains and other healthy fare would change their palates easily and rejoice at the healthy changes in schools? It took decades to teach America’s kids to prefer unhealthy food. Yet we’re ready to throw in the towel and serve kids the same garbage that has made them the first generation in history that may see a drop in their life expectancy thanks to the epidemic of obesity and related chronic diseases? Conservatives have had no problem being patient for 8 years as the U.S. fought a deadly and costly war in Iraq to root out terrorism. I guess our kid’s health isn’t as important.

5. Big Food is Cleverly Using Philanthropy to Silence Potential Critics- If you’ve ever wondered why fine health organizations like the American Dietetic Association, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Save the Children, Susan G. Komen For the Cure or the American Academy of Family Physicians accept funding from Big Food behemoths such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Hershey’s, McDonald’s, or KFC, your hunch is probably right. Funding is always tight for non-profits and Big Food knows it. That’s why they dangle huge sums of money in front of public health and health organizations that many seem unable to refuse – even if the money is clearly tainted. And once a health organization accepts Big Food money, they rarely will criticize the food or beverage industry. There needs to be an aggressive campaign to convey how damaging it is to the food reform movement when health organizations accept Big Food philanthropy. And groups that take this tainted money should be publicly shamed. The “good” that they can do with that money is miniscule in comparison to the damage they do with their apparent public support of unhealthy food and drink.

6. Food Reformers Need to Get Tough and Use Different Tactics if We Want to Win – Earlier this year, I wrote about how food reformers’ focus on science and evidence is easily trumped by Big Food’s money and messaging. If ever a year demonstrated how food reformer’s need to “up their game” it was 2011. The food industry’s clever advocacy, marketing, lobbying and messaging tactics torpedoed or weakened several important food policies (see Lesson #1, above) that would have made a huge difference in the lives of both kids and adults. We can’t win policy fights with industry if we don’t use similar tactics. It’s also critical that food reform funders start funding counter-marketing, advocacy and messaging campaigns. Yes, Big Food and Big Ag will always have more lobbying/advocacy money than public health advocates. But as the tobacco wars demonstrated, advocacy funding and a strong counter-marketing campaign (the Truth Campaign) can make a huge difference and change public perceptions of industry. Michele Simon’s recent post 2012: The Year to Stop Playing Nice, should be a wake-up call to the world of public health.

This was first published in the Huffington Post on December 27, 2011.

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