Tom Vilsack and the Avatar of Healthy Eating

Read the hilarious--and mostly spot-on--post in Civil Eats today: Lying, Smoking, Drinking, Big Ag: Why The Disney-USDA Partnership For “Healthy Eating” Is A Dangerous Alliance. (I say mostly because there's an image of the President that I can't quite wrap my mind around).

And this “policy” also goes against Ag Secretary Vilsack’s own statements that food should be regarded as energy. If food is energy and thus utilitarian, what’s wrong with teaching about food as food? Why do we need naughty animated characters to get in on the act? Why do we need to romanticize food at all? Most children know so little about food in general–how it’s grown, how it’s prepared–that adding in twisted animated creatures seems like an exceptionally perverted way to get this point across.

Some previous blog posts have dealt with cravings and imagination (cravings are primarily visual, and positive imagery helps combat them). I've asked whether fast food joints should have a webcam to the Amazon at every table, and pleaded, "Enough with the quasi-sexualization of the burger, already!" So I truly believe that Disney's puppet (or any Disney character) is not the correct avatar for the USDA Food Pyramid or the cause of childhood obesity. Isn't it better to get kid involved with gardening--or better yet, school cafeteria workers, as suggested in a fascinating debate documented by Grist:

(Blogger Tom) Lee would preserve the model of cafeteria workers as deskilled clerks with a specialty in reheating; Waters' (author of a NYT op-ed) way would require trained cooks -- who could then pass their skills onto students.

Look at what's marketed to kids (who display brand preferences as young as 3), and you see brightly-colored cereals with bursts(!!) of flavor, Happy Meals with accompanying's fantasy-food. Food with a hefty dose of magic with the actual substance of it. If foods are increasingly produced at far-away factories, pre-prepared and then frozen, bought and then delivered, what is there for kids to know about food except the candy coating? Further, the fact that as a culture we are so separated from food production means that the people working in the undervalued food service industry are also undervalued. I worked several years in food service and think it would be an act of justice for the people working in school cafeterias to have some meaningful role in kids' education. Then maybe it would be less exciting to watch the whiz-bang of a typical cereal commercial ("more flavor!!") and more interesting to learn the "how" of food.

This may all be overly optimistic. After all, once programmed to crave Cocoa Puffs and chicken nuggets, is it possible to attract kids' attention from Gummi Worms to vermicomposting? I think the move away from the ersatz, in all its forms, is one way of looking at many of our cultural crises--from obesity to political apathy.

Tags: Children, Cravings, Food, Imagination, Kids, Marketing, School

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