Childhood Obesity, Domestic and Economic Policy, Op-Eds

Obesity Problem Is About Personal Responsibility and Access

Published in the Huffington Post, 8/3/11

Regarding Kristin Wartman’s August 1st column, “Food Industry Would Prefer to Regulate Itself,” Ms. Wartman casts the food and advertising industry as the callous, corporate villain for a problem that, in truth, is really about personal responsibility and access to healthy and affordable foods.

First though, a little fact-checking:

The Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children (IWG) was formed in 2009 by Congress to study the effects of food marketing to children and obesity. This was not a project of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, of which, incidentally, I’m a huge fan. The IWG — composed of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) — was created to “conduct a study and develop recommendations for standards for the marketing of food” to children under the age of 17.

What came of that was proposed “voluntary” guidelines (whether or not “voluntary” guidelines proposed by the four major agencies overseeing the food and advertising industry are truly voluntary is a debate for another day) was a series of incredibly narrow, possibly damaging guidelines that could not only have major unintended consequences for the food industry and American jobs, but also for the same low-income, overweight Americans Ms. Wartman is concerned about.

What Ms. Wartman fails to realize is nutritious foods, such as Cheerios, low-fat yogurt, peanut butter and even some whole wheat breads, don’t make the “healthy” cut under the IWG’s proposed standards. Furthermore, these standards conflict with other healthy food standards from some of the very agencies participating in the IWG. In fact, the IWG’s proposed voluntary guidelines are stricter than those for the Women’s Infant and Children’s programs, the USDA’s HealthierUS Schools Challenge, the FDA’s definition of “healthy” and the USDA’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines. This is no “modest cap,” as Ms. Wardman suggests. It is, in fact, severe.

In all likelihood, these proposed voluntary guidelines will not help reduce the nation’s childhood obesity rate, particularly in minority and low-income areas. For example, cereal, sugary or otherwise, is largely responsible for vitamin D and calcium consumption among children. According to the CDC, 41% of milk consumed by children ages 6-12 is consumed with cereal. The percentages go up in African-American and Latino communities. If this breakfast option becomes more expensive and therefore, less accessible for the families who can least afford it because of these guidelines, the health and learning consequences for children could be disastrous. Kids who eat breakfasts consisting of foods such as cereal and milk have greater cognitive function, test grades and school attendance than those who don’t. They also are healthier in terms of overall nutrition and less likely to be overweight.

Perhaps most egregious, Ms. Wartman seems to totally ignore the role of parents or caregivers in managing the nutritional health of their children. Parents are the ones putting food on the table, not their children. I have never met a parent or caregiver who didn’t want the best for their children. Granted, not all, but most parents try to provide their children with the best food they can. Access to healthy and affordable foods in low-income communities and rural communities, where the obesity epidemic is quite severe, is a problem on which all of us should be focused. We should collectively applaud companies like Wal-Mart and Walgreens as well as the First Lady Michelle Obama and her “Let’s Move” campaign for pledging to open stores with fresh food throughout the nation’s food deserts, providing healthy meal options and local jobs. These are positive, effective steps.

Still, eradicating food deserts is a beginning. We need to work harder to educate low-income parents on the importance of balanced nutrition and how to prepare healthy meals loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables in ways that appeal to their children. The point is, though, the responsibility is on us in our homes. The government doesn’t love our children; parents do.

Michelle D. Bernard is the president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy and is an MSNBC political analyst.

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