Q&A: Bettina Elias Siegel, author of ‘Kid Food,’ on advertising, school lunch and food culture

Bettina Elias Siegel’s new book, Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World, is an entertaining primer for anxious parents on the myriad ways that America’s food system is designed to frustrate their best efforts to feed their kids a healthy diet—and what can be done to push back and, hopefully, change that system. Siegel, a lawyer and mother of two who used to work in marketing for Unilever (so she knows whereof she speaks!), writes The Lunch Tray blog, which is a leading source of news and commentary about school lunch policy, and really all things related to kids and food. Since launching the blog, in 2010, she has taken on everything from “pink slime” in school ground beef to a misleading nutrition video that McDonald’s sought to show in schools, and her reporting and analysis are frequently cited in leading media outlets.

The stories you tell in this book about advertising to kids will make parents furious. How is the rise of streaming television affecting the issue of advertising to kids?

Despite the rise of streaming shows, American children across the board are still being exposed to around 11 TV commercials for foods or beverages each day, and the vast majority of those ads promote unhealthy products. Thanks to that new digital technology, kids are also now reached through their smartphones, via apps, games, and powerfully effective “influencers” in their social media feeds. On top of all that, they’re still surrounded by many other traditional forms of kid-directed marketing, like product placements in their favorite movies and TV shows, cartoon characters on in-store displays and product packaging, the toys in fast food meals, “copycat” junk food products in their school cafeteria, and so on. So even if your child’s television watching consists of mostly commercial-free streaming shows, I don’t think you can safely assume they’re insulated from junk food marketing.

You suggest that the rising healthcare costs of childhood (and adult) obesity could eventually force politicians/policymakers to act. Those costs are already at $150 billion (and that’s probably conservative). What’s the tipping point?

That’s a fair question, and I often despair at the fact that we don’t seem to be there yet. But let’s also not overlook some important policy developments in recent years. We’ve seen the passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, which very significantly improved the nutritional quality of the school meals eaten by 30 million children every day, as well expanding kids’ access to those meals. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, those improved nutritional standards will prevent over 2 million cases of childhood obesity over the next ten years while saving almost $800 million in healthcare costs, and the same legislation also improved the food served to children in federally funded daycare centers. We’ve also seen changes to the WIC food package that have been credited with reducing childhood obesity among young children participating in that program. And we’re seeing various localities adopting soda taxes, which would have been unthinkable not very long ago. So, while we clearly still have a long way to go, there has been laudable progress.

Many of the responses/solutions you describe to the problems of “kid food,” at least when it comes to school lunch, rely on government funding. You cite examples in places like France, Finland, etc. that don’t suffer from the antipathy toward Big Government that afflicts the U.S. Is there a danger that, in the absence of a public response, if we rely on private funding it will exacerbate the inequality that already plagues our food system? In other words, public schools with active and well-heeled PTAs can raise money for all manner of extracurricular things that other schools can’t.

This is something that really troubles me. In the case of school food, you’ll often discover that the districts doing the best job — the ones serving more scratch-cooked, whole foods — have found private philanthropy to augment their federal reimbursement, or they’ve gotten charitable grants for needed kitchen infrastructure. I applaud those districts for having the initiative to find that outside funding, but it’s not a system that’s replicable nationwide. A child’s access to high-quality school food shouldn’t be determined by ZIP code.

 When you describe school lunches in France, Japan, etc., you cite the deep, rich food cultures in these countries—supported by both government officials and parents. We don’t have that here. We’ve never had that here. How big of a problem is that, not just in addressing the woeful nature of American school lunches, but all the dietary problems you describe?

I do think that our lack of a coherent food culture in this country plays a role in the general decline of all Americans’ diets, not just children. We just don’t have one hallowed, shared way of eating that we’re all eager preserve — and, indeed, American’s fast food and processed food have helped destroy other cultures’ valued foodways. That said, I do think there’s a growing awareness that we’ve lost something important by relying so heavily on the highly processed food that currently makes up 60 percent of our diets. We’re seeing a younger generation of parents successfully push companies to offer cleaner labels and shorter ingredient lists, and smaller, upstart companies with healthier products have clearly disrupted Big Food’s former dominance of the industry. So maybe there’s hope!

You discuss changes in kids’ overall food environment in the book, but what do you think about the specific strategy, driven by behavioral psychology/economics, to change what is known as ‘choice architecture’ as a way to make healthier choices the more convenient choices? Things like moving the snacks further from the coffee machine in the office lunchroom. Or making the salad bar the first thing diners encounter in the cafeteria.  

I don’t discuss choice architecture specifically in the book, in part because many of Cornell professor Brian Wansink’s much-publicized “Smarter Lunchroom” studies (advocating for the use of those techniques in school cafeterias) were recently discredited. I’ve since been told that some of his ideas are backed up by other research and if that’s the case, I’m fine moving the salad bar to get kids to eat more salad. But what I didn’t like about Wansink’s approach, even before his data was questioned, was his contention that we should keep unhealthy foods in school cafeterias and just move them around to “nudge” kids in the right direction. If we believe, for example, that flavored milk has too much added sugar, I’m not sure it’s enough to just move the chocolate milk to the back of the cooler, behind the white milk, and hope kids take the hint. We’re the adults here, and in a federally funded child nutrition program, it’s our responsibility to actually constrain children’s choices when doing so is in the best interest of their health.