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Adding is great, but only if done in conjunction with subtracting

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, November 9, 2010 14:52 EDT
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As much as I’m generally supportive of Michelle Obama’s initiatives to get Americans, especially kids, to eat better and exercise more, I have to blog some more about why her program is bound to fail. It’s because it’s all about adding, but there’s not enough about subtracting, and without the latter, not much is really going to happen in terms of getting Americans, especially children, to a place where they’re eating healthier food. Adding is great, of course. More programs focusing on physical fitness, more programs addressing the problem of food deserts, more education, etc. Adding especially has the potential to help people living in poverty, whose greater rates of obesity are the result of lack of access to better food. Adding is great. I’m not dissing adding.

The problem with adding is that it’s way more politically feasible and it’s easy to focus on it at the expense of subtracting. Everyone can feel they’re doing something without actually crossing anyone who would resist them. Fast food companies are happy to tack a salad no one eats to their menu and call it a day. A lot of subtracting efforts are punitive, which automatically sets off a lot of liberals, sometimes with good reason—when regressive tax structures are put into place on certain foods without increasing access to other foods, that’s a major problem. Everyone loves to applaud adding sidewalks, but if you actually try to subtract environmental cues that encourage driving over walking—like reducing the amount of available parking—people flip out. Food producers, junk food companies, and the voters all prefer the message, “Eat an apple” over “Don’t eat piles of cheese.” We like to applaud having someone ask the food industry politely not to serve so much crap, but any effort to actually get them to stop serving so much crap is received as punitive and resisted.

People like to talk about adding, because the people who are helped the most with this focus are those living in poverty and who don’t have regular access to good food. But Americans of every class eat poorly and don’t exercise enough. Getting the poor up to middle class levels will help, but it will still result in a nation of epic heart disease and diabetes. The problem isn’t just that some people don’t have access to healthy food. It’s also that people who have that access don’t use it.

If you could fix our problems only with adding, that would be fine, but you can’t. You just can’t. Unless we start depriving the food industry of money and an unrestricted landscape, for instance, the First Lady can leap around with children until she collapses from exhaustion, and not a damn thing will change.

Example #1:

And Dairy Management, which has made cheese its cause, is not a private business consultant. It is a marketing creation of the United States Department of Agriculture — the same agency at the center of a federal anti-obesity drive that discourages over-consumption of some of the very foods Dairy Management is vigorously promoting.

That’s right. The government runs an agency whose entire purpose is to move Americans away from ingrained cultural tendencies not to suck down rubbery-tasting cheese by the gallon, and instead get us to coat everything we eat with cheese. They do this for the sole purpose of improving profits for companies that are, bit by bit, destroying the health of Americans. For example:

Domino’s Pizza was hurting early last year. Domestic sales had fallen, and a survey of big pizza chain customers left the company tied for the worst tasting pies.

Then help arrived from an organization called Dairy Management. It teamed up with Domino’s to develop a new line of pizzas with 40 percent more cheese, and proceeded to devise and pay for a $12 million marketing campaign.

Consumers devoured the cheesier pizza, and sales soared by double digits.

Granted, taxpayer dollars don’t go to this agency—it’s funded by a fee put on the dairy manufacturers that the agency exists to promote—but that matters less than the larger problem, which is that this agency is incredibly effective at remaking the American diet. Americans consume way, way, way more dairy products than we should by any measure. Did you know that one of the jokes about Americans worldwide is that we coat everything in tasteless cheese? What’s funny is the article doesn’t even question how agencies like this managed to get Americans to think there’s something normal and healthy about adults sitting down and drinking a glass of milk, even though the mere existence of lactose intolerance should make people think about why that’s probably not such a great idea. I’m not opposed to dairy consumption. In moderation, it’s great—cream in your coffee, cheese plates at parties, cheese as a flavor added to some foods, yogurt dollops on all sorts of food. But the way Americans eat it is out of control. We do unholy things like put cheese on chicken sandwiches, or stuff it into the crust of a pizza. According to this article, we eat on average 3 times as much cheese as in 1970.

Clearly, taking away this agency would do a lot to change the equation, as would changing subsidy structures to discourage dairy farming and encourage more produce farming. Perhaps there could be penalties exacted against restaurants whose cheese per ounce of food sold ratio is beyond a certain point. But that’s all subtracting. We’d prefer to just add a message, “Cheese: don’t eat too much!” and then spend millions of dollars on promotion to make sure that Americans eat too much cheese.

Example #2, demonstrating that getting business to voluntarily agree to not market crap doesn’t work:

In 2006, industry leaders including McDonald’s and Burger King entered into a voluntary agreement initiated by the Better Business Bureau to limit the marketing of unhealthy food to kids. They pledged to devote at least 50 percent of ads directed at kids to choices that are considered “better for you.”

But what they actually did was up the amount of shilling directly to children to eat crap:

Using data from The Nielsen Company and Arbitron Inc., Harris and her colleagues analyzed ads aired by 12 chains, including Burger King, Taco Bell, KFC and McDonald’s. She found that preschoolers are seeing 21 percent more ads for fast food, and older children are seeing 34 percent more — compared with 2003.

They also went to restaurants that supposedly were pushing the “healthier” options and found that they didn’t do much more than put a picture of some apple slices in the corner of the menu and then go on to ignore them. I’d imagine the number of meals that come with apple slices instead of french fries hovers around 1%, honestly. The fast food joints argue that they honored the agreement by putting up pictures of the slices at all, even as they escalated their marketing push. But the pictures of them are small compared to those of the fries. Not that I think that people would order them more if they were more prominently featured—god knows I tend to gravitate towards fries when offered a choice, because I’m usually hungry and not thinking about how I will achieve not-hungry with a sandwich and a salad. Since most people are like me, the problem is setting foot in the restaurant in the first place. McDonald’s and Burger King know this, which is why they have blanketed the airwaves with ads aimed at children in order to get them to whine at their parents, who are tired and just give in. 84% of parents with children report eating at a fast food joint at least once a week.

This is a case where only subtraction will work. Apple slices on the menu are an insult, there to give McDonald’s plausible deniability for putting the responsibility solely on the customer, and that’s it. Other adding strategies—like putting calorie counts on menus—have also proven ineffective. It’s time to start subtracting, starting with a ban on advertising fast food to children. Next is changing subsidy structures so high fat and high sugar foods are more expensive, and healthier foods are cheaper.

Only by going negative can we even start to get business to actually take positive action. If pushing produce becomes more profitable for them, big business will actually do it. Check out this story, for instance, that demonstrates that once a profit motive is introduced, grocery stores will go out of their way to make sure people are reaching for the cauliflower instead of a bag of chips.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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