MyPlate — have you caught the news? Me, I can’t get enough of it. I am thrilled by the debut of the federal government’s latest dietary advice to Americans. The overly complicated MyPyramid has been replaced with simple, easy-to-understand advice about what your plate should look like. Bravo, I thought, as a mom and as a communications professional with background in health and nutrition.
MyPlate is a good start, but I’ve learned the work doesn’t stop there. Education is just one component of changing consumers’ eating behavior. The food environment is another, frankly more influential component.
I didn’t always think it was so. Early on in my tenure running the U.S. apple industry’s health research and consumer outreach program, I naively thought that the obesity epidemic was an issue of lack of consumer knowledge. I believed the crisis could be solved by simply educating consumers about what they should be eating, and providing them with real-world tools to make better choices. No surprise there, given my line of work; communicators often think a problem can be addressed by more and better communication.
Then I had dinner with Dr. Bill Dietz.
Dr. Dietz is director of the Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the government agency charged with promoting and protecting Americans’ health. Luck of the draw, I got seated next to Dr. Dietz at an informal dinner one evening before a Produce for Better Health Foundation Board of Directors meeting, circa roughly 2001.
As the courses of a lovely Italian dinner progressed, Dr. Dietz convinced me that changing the food environment is as important — if not more so — than education. Knowing what to do is one thing, he told me. Actually doing it is a different matter entirely, and one that depends upon having a food environment that will allow it. That conversation was transformative for me, and I’m grateful to him or taking the time to share his perspective.
The past 10 years have convinced me that Dr. Dietz is right. Living outside of Washington, D.C., I have access to 10+ grocery banners and too many restaurants to count in a 10-mile radius, so I have no problem sourcing high-quality, healthy food to stock my refrigerator’s two produce drawers. I’m also well aware that I’m in the minority of most Americans. In an editorial for Produce Retailer, editor Pamela Riemenschneider wrote about her Oklahoma friend, for whom the closest grocery store is 20 miles away and even then it doesn’t carry much produce. What’s in the produce drawer of her friend’s fridge? Sodas.
I’ve seen this myself, shopping with my dad in the small southwestern Virginia town where he now lives. He has access to two grocery banners, a regional grocery chain and a national big-box discount retailer. The produce selection and quality at either store leaves much to be desired. Center of the store, the healthy food options I have at the other end of the state are nowhere to be found.
I don’t mean to beat up on the grocery sector, the problem of access to healthy food items is ubiquitous. In the restaurants, c-stores, vending machines, entertainment and sports venues, etc., that serve most of America, fresh, healthy options aren’t an option.
So now that we’ve got MyPlate to simplify dietary education, where do we go from here to similarly enable the food environment? Here are four ideas for inspiration, drawn from recent good news stories:
1. School the students. Nutrition education pros know that food preferences are established young. Getting salad bars in schools is a great way to reach kids where they eat five days a week. Kudos to United Fresh Produce Association’s Lorelei DiSogra and others for getting Michelle Obama’s attention, the First Lady has now incorporated this initiative into the administration’s Let’s Move campaign.
2. Address food deserts. Last year, Mike O’Brien told Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and other USDA officials the story of how Schnuck Markets filled a retail gap in a commercial area of downtown St. Louis (reported by The Packer here). Last month, Mrs. Obama announced six major retailers are now working with the Let’s Move campaign to bring healthy foods to food desert communities (reported by Washington Post here).
3. Make over menus. My oldest child called out the McDonald’s golden arches when he was only 18 months old, demonstrating the incredible power of a strong brand. I think McDonald’s deserves credit for its new menu changes. I’m now finishing up Hank Cardello’s 2009 book Stuffed, in it he recounts stories about the “stealth health” activities of El Pollo Loco and other foodservice operators. The Foodservice 2020 Initiative deserves a call-out here as well.
4. Focus on flavor. Fast food and junk food are consumers’ first choices today because they taste good and are omnipresent. To win more share of stomach, the fresh produce industry has to fight fire with fire, by emphasizing the flavor and ease of our foods over things like storage life. Then let’s borrow a page from the playbook of “that bunch of carrot farmers,” and market our goods as our competition does.
While changing the food environment may initially seem too daunting a task to achieve in our lifetimes, a central theme in each of these stories is the power that one person or company, or a group of like-minded folks, can have. Together, we are forming the proverbial village that it will take to get the job done, and the momentum of current events is like a wind at our backs.
What healthy steps can you take today to make a difference?