Food Fights Using Carrots and Sticks

Published on: 16:00PM May 17, 2010

I have to believe it was just a coincidence, but it was an intriguing juxtaposition just the same.

In last week’s Washington Post  Style section – where all the featurish soft news is reported – the lead story was about the new campaign coming out of the White House to encourage kids to eat better and exercise more.  This is a part of the “Let’s Move!” initiative that Michelle Obama is leading, and although it’s mostly feel-good, common sense exhortations at this point, there is clearly a policy angle as part of this, aimed at the still-developing rewrite of federal dietary guidelines, and it even plays off of the health care reform bill.

Formally known as the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, the clear focus is on getting kids to eat better.   Much of it involves getting them to eat less, at least those whose body mass indices are already too high.  Some of the recommendations, however, target the promotion of certain types of foods, i.e. fresh produce, versus salty snacks.   No arguments from me on any of this, except that this initiative certainly has the potential to veer into the realm of food politics...which I have defined, in the past, as being all about what foods are not, versus what they are (and we’ve all seen the buzzwords:  local, sustainable, organic, small, pasture, etc).  None of those trends have anything to do with food safety or nutritional content, and yet they all could actually make it harder to get good quality food onto kids’ plates.  We have to not let food politics and food science be confused.

Coincidentally, or not, in that same section last Wednesday, the daily book review covered a trio of new tomes all about proper eating.  But they were not diet books focused necessarily on nutrition or helping people lose weight.  Rather, they all exemplify the popular trend of food politics. 

“The Story of Earth’s Best “was about that pioneering organic food processing company.  The Organic Manifesto” is about the Rodale publishing company and its criticisms of “chemical agriculture.”  Also reviewed was “The Town That Food Saved,” about a town in Vermont that has led the “eat local” food movement.

The childhood obesity problem (and for that matter, having fat parents and grandparents is a problem as well) is a national crisis that will have to be solved with both carrots (some figurative, others literal) as well as sticks.  The key will be solutions that are scalable and reasonable.  The approaches recommended by the White House need to be based on common sense, more than on what the food elites like to read and write about in the types of books I just mentioned.  Let’s hope the White House reading list is more sensible.