Michelle Obama to Food Makers (Politely): Stop Fattening Our Children

At an address yesterday, the first lady issued a call to action for food makers and marketers. And they seemed to accept it.<br>
<strong>by Marian Burros</strong>

March 16, 2010

Michelle Obama challenged food makers to make and market healthier food. Official White House Photo by Samantha Appleton.

RODALE NEWS, WASHINGTON, DC—Michelle Obama scolded the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) at their meeting in Washington on Tuesday for not doing enough to reduce childhood obesity—and, in fact, for contributing to it. But if the assembled representatives of PepsiCo, Coca Cola, Kraft, Krispy Kreme, McDonald's, ConAgra, and other food and beverage manufacturers and fast-food chains were offended by the criticism, they never let on. Instead they laughed in all the right places, and gave her a standing ovation.

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THE DETAILS: A press release for the lobbying group said GMA members are “enthusiastic supporters of Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move! Initiative and its goal of solving childhood obesity.”

Do they have a choice?

It's not the first time that the food industry has been censured for its contribution to the childhood-obesity epidemic. Part of what makes the food makers willing to turn the other cheek is that this time they were upbraided by the first lady—not some Nutritional Nazi, as they've described most people who have criticized them in the past. And another part of it is that they don’t want to buck the trend toward more healthful food. And certainly part of their acceptance is due to Mrs. Obama's skill at mixing praise with criticism and humor. She complimented them on what they have done right, she pleaded with them as parents, she appealed to their better natures.

In conversations with several officials of the association after her speech, they offered supportive statements: “We’ve never had this kind of leadership at the White House.” “She didn’t talk about blame.” “She didn’t say there are good foods and bad foods.” In fact, GMA insists that its members have already done a lot of what Mrs. Obama is suggesting: reducing the fat, calories, sugar or salt in 10,000 products, and following voluntary guidelines about what is advertised on children's programming. So, problem solved, right?

WHAT IT MEANS: While the first lady acknowledged that GMA members had done some good things, she said they hadn’t gone far enough or fast enough. And she was highly critical of the labeling on food packaging, not only the incomprehensible 10-syllable words, but the need to do “long division with these portion sizes.”

In her remarks to the food makers, she called them out repeatedly, making it clear that she is on to all their tricks: “We need you not just to tweak around the edges, but to entirely rethink the products that you’re offering, the information that you provide about these products, and how you market those products to our children. That starts with revamping or ramping up your efforts to reformulate your products, particularly those aimed at kids, so that they have less fat, salt, and sugar, and more of the nutrients that our kids need."

Here are some other challenges Michelle Obama gave to the food industry—and tactics that parents should watch out for until things change.

Don't hide unhealthy ingredients behind a healthy label. Mrs. Obama acknowledged that the changes she called for can’t happen overnight, but said that it doesn't excuse attempts to disguise unhealthy food. “Adding a little bit of vitamin C to a product with lots of sugar, or a gram of fiber to a product with tons of fat, doesn’t suddenly make those products good for our kids," she said.

What parents can do: Read ingredient labels, not just the marketing copy. Be aware of tricks that grocery stores use to get you to buy overpriced, unhealthy food.

Stop bombarding kids with ads. Next, she swooped in on how the food companies' marketing influences children. “Our kids didn’t learn about the latest sweets and snack foods on their own," she said. "They hear about these products from advertisements on TV, the Internet, video games, schools, many other places." The effects of the ad blitz, she noted, are familiar to any parent. "We’ve all had to endure those impassioned pleas in the grocery store for one product or another. Some of us have been treated to full-scale reenactments of TV commercials and jingles, word for word, right on key.”

What parents can do: Limit TV time to the American Adacemy of Pediatrics' recommended 2 hours per day. Counterbalance screen time with exercise and activity.

Market healthy food as effectively as you're marketing unhealthy food. Acknowledging the food industry's voluntary commitment to limit marketing to children as an important step, Mrs. Obama nevertheless pointed out that a recent study found that while there were fewer food ads in children’s programming, more than 70 percent of foods that were being marketed to kids were among the least healthy. And less than 1 percent were among the most healthy. The first lady said it isn’t enough for companies to limit advertisements for unhealthy foods. “It’s going to be so critical to increase marketing for foods that are healthy," she said. "This isn’t about finding creative ways to market products as healthy; it’s about producing products that actually are healthy.”

What parents can do: Educate yourself about the calories in soda and juice, talk to the lunch staff at your child's school, and consider starting a garden with your children this spring.

And there may be one more reason why the first lady's audience was so receptive to her message: She praised their skill and appealed to their collective ego. “If there is anyone here who can sell food to our kids, it’s you," she told them. "You know what gets them to drive their parents crazy in the grocery store. And I’m here today to ask you to use that knowledge and that power to our kids’ advantage. I’m asking you to actively promote healthy foods and healthy habits to our kids."