The USDA has, at last, ditched the dreadful food pyramid (pdf) in favor of an educational graphic that actually makes sense: a plate. Divided into four sections, My Plate clearly advises that Americans fill half their plate with fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains, small portions of protein and low-fat dairy.
For public health advocates, the government’s new campaign is a victory. It’s simple. It’s clear. And it’s what any sensible nutritionist not receiving USDA dollars has been using for a long time. But their excitement over something that should be so small and so obvious reveals something problematic: the extent to which the government has ceded its authority concerning how Americans eat. Where we once looked to Uncle Sam for sensible advice for the table, today’s “don’t tread on me” attitude has cleared the way for companies like McDonald’s and PepsiCo to serve as our food-experts-in-chief.
This week the food-news spotlight is on the USDA, but one need only travel a few blocks to the National Archives for a primer on the government’s long history of dispensing dietary directives. The new exhibit, What’s Cooking Uncle Sam?, which opens today, traces how agencies from the USDA to the now-defunct U.S. Food Administration exhorted Americans to “eat more cottage cheese,” “know your onions” and “garden to cut food costs.” Such campaigns had great success. During World War II, Americans heeded that last piece of advice, planting 20 million victory gardens. Between 9 million and 10 million tons of fruits and vegetables were harvested from home and community plots during that time, a total equal to all commercial production.
In an era in which Sarah Palin makes political hay out of school cupcake policies, it’s hard to imagine our government being so bold when it comes to telling us how and what to eat. Today’s virulent anti-government sentiment casts federal agencies as inept and intrusive and the market, run by that brilliant, invisible hand, as efficient and effective.
But as it is in so many cases, the idea that the private sector will always do it better is a dangerous one. Food manufacturers and marketers have a key role to play in helping to shape a healthier, more common-sense food culture. But we can’t count on them to lead the way. Corporations are driven by the singular need to show quarterly profits, and as such are deeply invested in the status quo. At best, as a recent article in the New Yorker showed, they will create more nutritious products–as long as it helps them to sell more of them and keep people eating.
From the day Michelle Obama planted her garden on the White House lawn, she has, rightly, made clear that she wants to work with Big Food. She’s prodded food manufacturers to cut calories. She cut a deal with Wal-Mart to reduce sugar and sodium in its private-label products. But none of these efforts is enough to fundamentally change the way we eat. The new plate is a throwback, an echo from an era when government didn’t cower on the sidelines in one of our most important domestic debates. Let’s hope it is a first step toward a Super-Sized serving of government leadership.