Bad reporting bamboozles the public on food policy

Erroneous reports about the progress of food policies like healthier school lunches and calorie labeling have been appearing in the media in alarming numbers. I don’t know if the inaccurate reporting is being egged on by food industry PR (Big Food would like all food policies to fail), by reporters not doing their homework or by the reader-gripping sensationalism of a story about failure versus success.

Let me state up front what should be obvious to anyone reporting on food reform and obesity. There is no “magic bullet” measure that will single-handedly reverse the obesity epidemic and make our food system healthy. That’s why public health advocates have proposed a multitude of food-related policies that would improve our food environment across various sectors including agriculture, schools, sugary drink pricing and size, government, grocery stores, food marketing, restaurants, and food labeling.

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Every public health advocate knows that sugary drink taxes, alone, will not end the obesity epidemic. However, couple the passage of a nationwide penny per ounce sugary drink tax with measures to end food deserts, a ban on junk food marketing to kids, chain restaurant menu labeling, healthy school food standards, and a farm bill that subsidizes fruits and vegetables rather than corn and soy, and we’ll see massive improvements in our food environment and the nation’s health.

But somehow, the concept that a single policy fix doesn’t exist hasn’t gotten through to certain news outlets. Subsequently, some stories following up on implemented food policies tend to be unreasonably negative. If the policy doesn’t cure obesity or impact the behavior of the entire US population, or even if the policy faces predictable challenges, some reporters are quick to brand the policy a failure.

For example, in August, a Gallup survey on menu labeling usage sparked Debbie Downer headlines like this: “Menu Nutritional Information Ignored By More Than Half Of Americans, Survey Shows;” “Are Calorie Counts on Menus Pointless? A new poll shows many Americans say “yes;” “In US, Less Than Half Look at Nutrition Facts.” In reality, Gallup researchers found that 43 percent of Americans say they pay "a great deal" or a "fair amount" of attention to nutritional information on menus. Let me repeat, 43 percent surveyed said they have paid attention to menu labels! That means 135 million people could ultimately be paying attention to menu labeling, once it is implemented nationally. Why wasn’t that the headline?

And that’s not the only example of inexcusably poor reporting on food policy issues.  Just a year after an enormous overhaul of the nation’s school meals, some in the media have pronounced healthier school food a failure.

Fortunately, Dana Woldow explained how recent media reports on the school lunch program were wildly inaccurate, on Beyond Chron:

“On August 27th, a widely disseminated AP article (no longer posted) misleadingly implied that new healthier lunches were causing a mad rush by school districts to withdraw from the federally funded National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Nothing could be further from the truth…”

Woldow links to the School Nutrition Association (SNA) website, where SNA officials posted their own clarification of how few schools are currently considering dropping out of the National School Lunch Program:

“The vast majority of respondents (92.7%) reported that they do not plan, nor are considering, dropping any schools from NSLP, clearly indicating that there is no national trend of schools dropping out of NSLP.”

Another perplexing piece of so-called reporting (also mentioned by Woldow) was a CBS news report that cited how students in Kentucky thought the healthy school lunch fare ‘tastes like vomit.’ Give me a break - there’s absolutely nothing new, newsworthy or even shocking about a kid saying school food tastes like vomit. Insulting school food has always been a favorite pastime of students. When I was child, we called school cafeteria Sloppy Joe’s “puke on a bun.”

I think every reporter covering the issue of whether or not children are accepting healthier school food, needs to ask him or herself this question: Is it reasonable to expect children raised on a steady diet of fried, sugary and processed junk to switch over to a healthier menu without major complaint and pushback? How many adults could do that?

Our nation got itself into this mess of poor nutritional habits, rampant obesity and declining health over many decades. Surely, reputable news outlets can do better than inaccurate and sensational food policy reporting, as we slowly train our junk-food-loving kids to enjoy real food and nudge adults into healthier eating habits.

Our unhealthy food environment, as well as the related obesity and chronic disease epidemics, are shortening lives, raising medical costs, and impacting the very health of our economy. Let’s make sure that the facts about food reform policies that are making a difference, don’t get left in the dust of sensationalism.

Huehnergarth is a national food policy activist, journalist, coalition leader and president of Nancy F. Huehnergarth Consulting.



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