Dispatches from the Potomac#07 | Junk Food Fights Back

In the last installment I concluded that the obesity problem in the US seemed to be improving; but, this may have been overly optimistic. In this edition we will examine the “counterattack” of junk food.

This article was originally written in June for publication in the July 2014 edition of the Marubeni Group Magazine, M-SPIRIT.

Washington D.C. Office General Manager, Marubeni America Corporation    Takashi Imamura

Unexpected headwind for anti-obesity measures

At the end of May I was surprised to see an article written by Michelle Obama, the First Lady, with the title “The Campaign for Junk Food” on the editorial page of New York Times.

The First Lady has been working hard on several programs to save children from obesity. As a result, the Child Nutrition Act was enacted in December 2010, and the national standards for school lunch programs were updated. However, within one year of the changes to school lunches based on the new standards, the Republican Party submitted a bill that would take the teeth out of the new nutrition standards. The First Lady pushed back. Since she is usually careful to maintain some distance from political games, writing this editorial shows that she takes this counterattack very seriously.

Although this bill may be able to pass in the House of Representatives, it will probably be voted down in the Senate where Democrats hold a majority. Nevertheless, I am shocked to see how easily an attack on something as proper and scientifically sound as replacing junk food with fresh fruits and vegetables in school lunches to save children from obesity can progress so far.

Protests against the new nutrition standards were raised last fall by the children who eat the meals, as well as the nutritionists who provide them. The children who saw their favorite menus disappear and replaced with fruits and vegetable complained that the new meals didn't taste good, and just threw the food away without eating it. Others complained that reduced calorie menus didn't provide enough food. The nutritionists claimed that vegetables and fruits were too expensive, making it more difficult to design menus within the budget compared with junk food.

This kind of resistance was anticipated by the Federal Government and the anti-obesity campaign groups. They were already working on developing ways to get children to eat vegetables and fruits willingly, and devising healthy, cost-effective menus to promote this movement; and their efforts were getting results. Therefore, it is difficult to believe that the complaints from the schools are a significant reason that the bill has a chance to pass in the House.

Food product manufacturers behind the counterattack

Who is driving this resistance? Major media suspect the food manufacturers who have been supplying enormous amounts of junk food to schools. The apparent leader of the protest campaign is the SNA, School Nutrition Association, an organization with a membership of 55,000 nutritionists throughout the country. On behalf of its members, the SNA is requesting a review of the new school nutrition standards. Oddly, this same organization helped Mrs. Obama drive the anti-obesity campaign back in 2010. What made them change their mind?

According to the media, internal sources disclosed that the SNA depends financially on donations from food manufacturers who make high profits from supplying products for school meals, leading to the conclusion that the SNA top management is being pressured to oppose the new nutrition standards. The SNA, of course, argues that such influence from the food manufacturers is very limited, saying that their actions are simply based on member concerns about the new standards. However, the USDA reported that over 90% of schools have already adopted the new standards, which makes the SNA argument sound very weak. It makes more sense that this is a counterattack by food manufacturers trying to protect a huge market worth USD 11 trillion.

There is the rather cynical view that says “Even for a fundamentally correct movement like an anti-obesity campaign, the group that comes under attack will always fight back. That's just the dynamics of American politics.” It is well known that the US food industry is politically powerful. In the past, they convinced Congress to agree that tomato paste and pizza made with tomato paste should be classified as vegetables. But, that's not the point. The worry is the future of a country where a critical issue like “anti-obesity programs for children” can be derailed. I hope the government can devise a good answer to this debate.