First Lady Michelle Obama’s effort to end childhood obesity includes partnerships with big food corporations, and one Washington D.C. scholar says that’s not the way to win the war.
“Corporations are in the business to make money, whether they sell Cheez Whiz or Cheez Whiz Light,” states George Washington University associate professor of sociology Ivy Ken in a recently published study. “When that goal is threatened, they engage in issues management using both structural and discursive strategies.”
In other words, Big Food will play the game, so to speak, to appear as if they are striving to make their food healthier to curry favor with the public, but according to Ken, those efforts mostly amount to rhetoric and half measures.
Making matters worse, Michelle Obama’s Partnership for a Healthier America, as well as former President Bill Clinton’s Alliance for a Healthier Generation, blame consumers instead of the corporate makers of unhealthy foods, Ken argues.
These two organizations “turn overweight and obese people into idiots” by treating them as if they “do not know any better than to make bad choices,” Ken wrote in her study: “A Healthy Bottom Line: Obese Children, a Pacified Public, and Corporate Legitimacy.”
“Michelle Obama does not think people are idiots,” Prof. Ken said in an interview with The College Fix. “What’s at issue here are food companies, and the tactics they use to deal with the issue of obesity in a way that allows them to maintain legitimacy.”
Nevertheless, Michelle Obama’s own words appear to counteract that in a recent interview with MSN.com, in which she said her Harvard and Princeton education couldn’t even help her feed her kids right.
“Before coming to the White House, I struggled, as a working parent with a traveling, busy husband, to figure out how to feed my kids healthy, and I didn’t get it right,” Obama said. “I thought to myself, if a Princeton and Harvard-educated professional woman doesn’t know how to adequately feed her kids, then what are other parents going through who don’t have access to the information I have?”
But partnerships with companies such as Nestle and Kraft are not the answer, Ken argues.
“Part of their strategy is to form public-private partnerships, which in this case includes a champion for healthy food and healthy lifestyles: Mrs. Obama,” she said. “Many people feel that since food companies exist, we have to work with them rather than against them, and this seems to be Mrs. Obama’s practical stance.”
Yet it’s a mistake, she added.
“Entering into public-private partnerships, as they have here, is a way for them to avoid public scrutiny and regulation in the midst of a public health crisis that they have contributed to,” she said of big business.
As for the anti-obesity groups, their ties with big business means “continuing a vast set of harmful practices that are not in our best interests.”
Prof. Ken attended a 2013 Partnership for a Healthier America summit at which Michelle Obama spoke, and was surprised at how the group promoted its corporate sponsors.
“I expected to hear a rousing speech from Mrs. Obama, but I was unprepared for the massive coordination apparent in the PHA’s message and the approval that the conference’s public health-focused attendees bestowed upon all the corporate speakers at the event,” she wrote in her study.
While many Libertarians in America say that the federal government should not support or decry the decisions of free people, Prof. Ken says she does not see aspects of Libertarianism here.
“Rather, I see food companies working very hard to manipulate both the public and the government,” she said in her interview.
“Despite all the language these companies use about ‘making the healthy choice the easy choice,’ obesity has not risen because a bunch of individual people have separately made bad choices,” she added. “Much more important are the limited and harmful options from which people have to choose when they shop for food.”
Ken adds in her study: “By framing corporations as vital community partners poised to ‘work together’ across sectors to solve the childhood obesity ‘crisis,’ these organizations hope to inspire the public to participate in this imagined community in one predominant way: by buying their products.”
College Fix contributor Andrew Desiderio is a student at The George Washington University.
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