MyPlate: A sign of real leadership?

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.

Source: Special Collections, National Agricultural Library

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.

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  1. Posted June 3, 2011 at 12:14 PM | Permalink


    I think your blog about the new My Plate guidelines are well written and on the mark.

    From a visual and information design perspective, I think these new guidelines are a massive jump from the older pyramid. By putting the imagery on a plate, the new guidelines become instantly associated with food and eating. Also, by putting the different blocks on the plate in different colors, the guidelines provide a model of relative portion sizes people should be eating.

    However, no matter how much I am impressed with these new guidelines, I do not think these are “an echo from an era when government didn’t cower on the sidelines in one of our most important domestic debates.” These new guidelines are only guidelines and are not associated with any tools or means to enforce or otherwise encourage a change in American eating habits. During World War Two, much of the effort in changing American eating habits was pushed into two channels: PR/Propaganda to inform the public, raise awareness, and encourage adoption of the suggested changes; and, price controls or settings via rationing controls, government price setting schemes and other similar mechanisms. The combination of the two created the push/pull effect necessary to actually achieve change.

    This is not the case with the current guidelines. While the new guidelines are great and a much needed step forward, the USDA, FDA, and other agencies are not stepping forward with significant revisions to Ag subsidy programs, food purchasing guidelines for publicly funded meals (i.e. schools and prisons), or other similar programs capable of affecting prices and availability of the types of food we need and should all be eating.

    If the government is going to truly take aim at this issue and debate with the intent of actually changing our society’s overall food behavior and perspective, it must but some teeth behind its words by adopting a multiple prong approach tying PR/Propaganda (thoughts) with economic enforcement or incentive measures (action).

  2. Posted June 4, 2011 at 7:16 PM | Permalink

    Great thought. I recently wrote an article on the same issue and questioned if the gov made MyPlate too simple. For me it still doesn’t address where our food comes from, or how to got to “myplate” Thanks for the thought provoking post.
    Conscious Kitchen!/Mary_Crimmins

  3. Posted June 8, 2011 at 9:28 AM | Permalink

    Thanks for the thoughtful response. I agree. This is important but only a very first step. There needs to be much, much more aggressive regulation and, as you put it, propaganda. (Or at the very least, restriction of propaganda by food corporations.) On NPR yesterday, there was a piece about how food companies are fighting back against new school food rules that would limit the consumption of starchy vegetables. They seem to want change without changing anything. Which, of course, is impossible.

  4. Posted June 9, 2011 at 4:50 PM | Permalink

    Piggy backing of Jane’s comment, I think the new MyPlate is a step in the right direction. Very simple. It’s really tricky though when the government adds in more regulation. Some people say we need more regulation as people, who have the right to choose their choice, are choosing unhealthy foods. We’re seeing a snowball effect from parents to children with high child obesity rates–however–the more regulation and propaganda also scares many as “too much control” is a heavy debate lately. Touchy subject, either way, one to be discussed.

  5. Posted June 14, 2011 at 9:35 PM | Permalink

    Jane. One thing. It takes some time to get the rest on board. Do you think Europe was exactly keen after WW2. We learned. The same way all our producers learned,be they US etc…..Come to Europe. The portions will not be so big,but due to public pressure,there are far more healthy altenatives. Avoid my favourite meal. One full English breakfast. Bad news for anyone counting their calories. Just try cereals. Did the cereal idea work for me? Erm…. Not exactly…..

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  • About Me

    Jane BlackI am a Washington, D.C.-based food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. My work appears in the Washington Post, (where I was a staff writer), the New York Times, Saveur, New York magazine and other publications. On this site, you will find my blog and links to my written work and my Washington Post columns.