May 2011





National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research Launches Measures Registry

April 2011, NCCOR

The National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research (NCCOR) has launched a free, searchable online registry of measures and resources to use in childhood obesity research.

Public health researchers need standard measures in order to describe and monitor obesity trends and related factors and evaluate interventions. Measures are defined broadly as tools and methodologies to assess diet, physical activity, and the environments in which these behaviors occur. NCCOR’s Measures Registry is an interactive Web tool developed to facilitate access to available measures, help identify gaps in measures, and encourage the development of new measures. Details about each measure include validity, reliability, protocols for use, and settings, geographic areas, and populations in which the measure has been used.

The Measures Registry includes almost 750 measures in four domains: individual dietary behavior, food environment, individual physical activity, and physical activity environment. Types of measures in the Registry include questionnaires, instruments, diaries, logs, electronic devices, direct observation of people or environments, protocols, and analytic techniques. Users can search for measures and details about how to use them, find measures in development, link to other measures registries and related resources, and submit new measures for inclusion.

“Today, nearly one in five U.S. children is obese – a number that’s increased four-fold in the last 40 years. We need to use the power of research to find ways to address this serious public health problem,” said National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director, Dr. Francis Collins. “This new registry will encourage researchers to share and use common measures, thereby accelerating efforts to curb our nation’s epidemic of childhood obesity.”

The Measures Registry is available at To register for the May 19th webinar on the features and uses of the Registry, please visit

NCCOR is a collaboration among the NIH, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to accelerate progress on reversing the epidemic of childhood obesity in the United States. Through the collective efforts of these organizations, NCCOR aims to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of research on childhood obesity.

NCCOR recently launched another resource for childhood obesity researchers, the Catalogue of Surveillance Systems: This interactive Web tool provides one-stop access to a wide array of obesity-related data sources at multiple levels. Using the Catalogue, researchers can identify data resources, compare attributes across systems, and link to other resources of interest. A webinar on the features and uses of the Catalogue is scheduled for May 5. To register, visit The Catalogue and the Registry are complementary tools intended to increase obesity researchers’ productivity.

Please visit for more information about the Registry, a full list of NCCOR-led projects, upcoming events, and childhood obesity research highlights.



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Publications & Tools

CDC Report Highlights Lack of Healthy Food Environments for Children

Communities can influence children’s diets by ensuring that nutritious, healthy food choices are accessible in their areas. The 2011 Children’s Food Environment State Indicator Report and National Action Guide, newly released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, includes data about food access, regulations, and policies that may improve childhood obesity. Policy and environmental indicators across early care and education (child care), school, and community settings are included along with behavioral indicators on sugar drinks, family meals, and television viewing.



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Interagency Working Group Seeks Input on Proposed Voluntary Principles for Marketing Food to Children

In an effort to combat childhood obesity – the most serious health crisis facing today’s youth – a working group of four federal agencies released for public comment a set of proposed voluntary principles that can be used by industry as a guide for marketing food to children.

Led by former Sen. Sam Brownback and Sen. Tom Harkin, Congress directed the Federal Trade Commission, together with the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to establish an Interagency Working Group of federal nutrition, health, and marketing experts to develop recommendations for the nutritional quality of food marketed to children and adolescents, ages 2 to 17. The working group seeks public comment on the proposed voluntary nutrition and marketing principles it has developed. After public comment, the working group will make final recommendations in a report to Congress. This is not a proposed government regulation.

The proposed voluntary principles are designed to encourage stronger and more meaningful self-regulation by the food industry and to support parents’ efforts to get their kids to eat healthier foods. While the goals they would set for food marketers are ambitious and would take time to put into place, the public health stakes could not be higher. One in three children is overweight or obese, and the rates are even higher among some racial and ethnic groups.

“Children are strongly influenced by the foods they see advertised on television and elsewhere. Creating a food marketing environment that supports, rather than undermines, the efforts of parents to encourage healthy eating among children will have a significant impact on reducing the nation’s childhood obesity epidemic,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “These new Principles will help food and beverage companies use their creativity and resources to strengthen parents’ efforts to encourage their children to make healthy choices.”

“As a parent and grandparent, I know the power advertising and marketing can have on kids, and my hope is that the food industry will embrace these voluntary principles and apply them so parents can make informed decisions about the foods they feed their children,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

“To their credit, some of the leading companies are already reformulating products and rethinking marketing strategies to promote healthier foods to kids. But we all have more work to do before we can tip the scales to a healthier generation of children,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. “This proposal encourages all food marketers to expand voluntary efforts to reduce kids’ waistlines.”

The FTC has posted a request for comments on the proposed principles to its website. Interested parties will have 45 days to comment, during which time the working group will hold a half-day forum to provide stakeholders with a chance to comment in person. The forum will take place on Tuesday, May 24 in Washington, D.C. Additional details about the forum will be provided soon. Public comments will be considered by the agencies before the final report is submitted to Congress.

The working group proposal sets out two basic nutrition principles for foods marketed to children. Advertising and marketing should encourage children to choose foods that make meaningful contributions to a healthful diet from food groups including vegetables, fruit, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat milk products, fish, extra lean meat and poultry, eggs, nuts or seeds, and beans. In addition, the saturated fat, trans fat, added sugars, and sodium in foods marketed to children should be limited to minimize the negative impact on children’s health and weight. The working group proposes that industry strive to market foods by the year 2016 that meet the proposed nutritional principles and marketing criteria. For sodium, the proposal includes interim targets for 2016 and final targets for 2021.

The proposed principles are voluntary and do not call for government regulation of food marketing. They are an opportunity for food and beverage manufacturers, public health advocates, the entertainment industry, academics, and other stakeholders to provide comments that will inform the working group’s final recommendations to Congress.


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CDC Releases Tool to Help Health Practitioners Assess their Retail Environment

The Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity (DNPAO) at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just released the fact sheet “Healthier Food Retail: Beginning the Assessment Process in Your State or Community.” This document provides an overview of steps state or local public health practitioners can take to assess their retail food environment. States and communities can use this tool to better understand their current food retail landscape and differences in accessibility to healthier foods.


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Childhood Obesity Research & News

In Obese Children, Researchers Examine Nature vs. Nurture

April 26, 2011, WAMU

By Kavitha Cardoza

Scientists are still trying to understand the causes of childhood obesity and how best to treat it. Researchers in the area are attacking the problem in a number of different ways: examining environmental influences, genetic triggers, psychological reasons, new medicines, and even epigenetics, which looks at how the prenatal environment influences genes.

One of the biggest misconceptions is a person’s weight is only about calories in, calories out, says Dr. Jack Yanovski, head of the Growth and Obesity Clinic at the National Institutes of Health. For example, if you see someone who is heavy, “Yes, of course they have to be eating more than they burn, but that’s at a very simplistic level,” Yanovski says.

The ‘genetic burden’

Yanovski says genetics plays a critical role. “We know that there are a lot of processes going on in the body that promote digestion, that decides how quickly you eat, how quickly your stomach feels full, how quickly your brain receives that signal, how much the energy will be put into fat cells, how much will be used to burn, all those things can be affected by different genetic variants, and the treatments for each of those will probably be different,” he says.

Yanovski says twin studies show that a child of two obese parents will likely be obese — and not just because of the family’s lifestyle.

“If we take that same person, born of two heavy parents, transplant him into another family, where he’s adopted by two lean parents, that person would still be obese as an adult. And the estimate we have of how likely that is to be is like 60 to 80 percent,” he says.

Researchers differ on the importance of what some call our “genetic burden.” Depending on whom you speak to, experts cite figures ranging from 40 to 90 percent for what percentage of obesity can be attributed to hereditary factors.

But experts do agree on one thing: Your genes don’t have to be your destiny. Yanovski estimates fewer than 100 people in the world have such severe gene defects that they cannot lose weight with diet and exercise.

Understanding the issue

Yanovski says research about childhood obesity is still in its infancy. In 2010 the NIH published a study showing teenage boys going through puberty ate almost 2,000 calories on average at a buffet meal. Before that, researchers just knew it was a lot. Now, they’re taking it a step further, studying exactly which foods teens choose and why.

Jaci Zocca coordinates a research study with teenagers for Yanovski. She lays out a buffet including cold meats, cheeses and fruit, as well as peanut butter and jelly, candy and jelly beans, even some chicken nuggets.

Teenagers fast for 10 hours before they come here and listen to a recorded message: “Please eat until you are no longer hungry…”

Yanovski says some teens eat 14 sandwiches.

“The whole buffet has 12,000 calories. We have had some folks who’ve eaten 5- and 6,000 calories,” he says.

After they’re full, teens are shown a five-minute video clip — either one that’s sad or one of birds flying. Then they’re given another buffet of ice cream, candy and chips. Researchers study whether certain teens react to the emotional triggers by eating even though they’re full.

Yanovski also studies how teens exercise. He says doctors often tell parents to focus on maintaining their child’s weight. But studies conducted at NIH show these children actually have to shed pounds, not just maintain their existing weights.

“It’s not enough just to say, ‘Oh, they’ll be fine. Let them grow into their weight.’ There are some exceptions, and those children are very lucky, but for the vast majority of kids, being heavy at a young age is going to predict being heavy in adolescence and in adulthood,” Yanovski says.

Beyond the labels

Sara Bleich is an assistant professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management at Johns Hopkins University. She says changing teen behavior is difficult. For one, they’re young and aren’t thinking of long-term health consequences. Also, there’s a time lag between eating something and putting on weight.

“We often tend to err toward, ‘I’ll just have that cookie today and worry about my skinny jeans tomorrow!'” Bleich says.

Another problem may be understanding calorie counts, so Bleich says just labeling food and drinks is not enough. She conducted an experiment with teenagers at corner stores in Baltimore. A coke machine in the store would have a bright sign with one of three messages. Teens would see only one message at a time.

“The first message would say, ‘Did you know a bottle of soda has about 250 calories?’ which is directly consistent with what you’re seeing now in restaurants,” she says. “The second message would say, ‘Did you know that a bottle of soda, to burn it off would take about 50 minutes of running?’And the third was making it as a percent of daily value, so, ‘A bottle of soda is about 10 percent of your daily intake,'” she says.

Bleich says her hypothesis is that teens in the second group would make better choices because it’s practical information they understand, instead of an abstract concept, such as calories.

“People think if you do a little bit of exercise, you’re burning off a lot of calories, and that is not the case,” she says.

Is overweight ‘the new normal’?

Researchers are tackling childhood obesity from various angles: how adjusting the price in vending machines can influence student choices, how the placement of foods in school cafeterias can change selections, and how food packaging affects children’s preferences.

But Professor Maureen Black with the University of Maryland School of Medicine says it’s not just about changing the menu and increasing physical education. It’s about what she calls “altering the social norm.”

“Meaning that it is cool to eat healthy things, and it is not cool to be eating donuts,” she says. “We try to change the ethos of the school, that it’s cool to take care of yourself,” she says.

Black’s strategy involved airing several “healthy” messages before classes, having older girls mentor younger ones and introducing activity clubs. But changing the way people think takes time.

Dawn Witherspoon, a post-doctoral fellow who works with Black, found girls who were overweight weren’t concerned about their body size and had healthy self esteem, until they became obese. She says that’s challenging.

“How do we intervene if they don’t think it’s a problem? That’s the part that I think is a little scary,” Witherspoon says. “If overweight becomes the new normal, if people don’t see it as a problem, then how to you make a change?”

A lifelong struggle

Experts agree that early intervention is best. Dr. Alan Schuldiner is with the University of Maryland School of Medicine. He studies the DNA of the Amish population in Lancaster, Penn., hoping their fairly homogeneous gene pool will provide some clues about obesity. While it’s rare to find an obese Amish child because they are so active, “Amish adults are just as obese as the general population,” he says.

That’s partly because as the adults reach their 50s, their physical activity decreases after their children take over farming, according to Schuldiner. Also, Amish women have many more children. He says this finding has implications in the broader conversation about obesity.

“Some pediatricians suggest that if we could cure or prevent childhood obesity, we would solve the adult obesity problem. And I think that the Amish are telling us that’s probably not true,” Schuldiner says.

In other words, maintaining a healthy weight is a lifelong challenge.


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Program Puts Chefs into Schools to Promote Nutrition, Fight Obesity

April 7, 2011, Indianapolis Star

By Jolene Ketzenberger

In his chef’s jacket and distinctive white hat, Frank Lee looks a bit out of place amid the clattering trays and cartons of milk in a school cafeteria.

But Lee’s presence at Warren Central High School is part of a larger national effort that someday might change the perception of who — and what — belongs in your child’s school lunchroom.

Lee is one of about a dozen local chefs participating in Chefs Move to Schools, a program that aims, in part, to improve school meals.

The fledgling program is part of first lady Michelle Obama’s national “Let’s Move!” initiative to end childhood obesity within a generation — a goal of particular significance in Indiana, where 13 percent of high school students are obese, according to an annual CDC report. Since the chef program began last year, more than 2,000 schools across the country and more than 2,400 chefs have registered.

Schools in three local districts — Brownsburg, Warren Township and Westfield — are among those already participating in the program, which encourages chefs and schools to think broadly and creatively about what they want to accomplish.

Although some school districts may want help revamping menu items, other schools may have something else in mind — a garden, perhaps, or cooking demonstrations.

For Lee, who already serves as executive chef for Warren Township Schools, putting in extra effort with Chefs Move to Schools is all about giving kids better food.

At Warren Central, he said, changes already made included a switch to more whole grains, more fruits and vegetables, made-to-order sandwiches — even fresh-baked bread.

“We’re taking it up a notch from the old lunch lady stuff that used to be,” Lee said. “We cook every day.”

The program, which began last summer with a rally of white-jacketed chefs on the White House lawn, tackles the problem of obesity by promoting healthier food.

Kim Eagle, director of the University of Michigan Cardiovascular Center, said improving the nutritional value of school lunches can reduce students’ obesity risk.

“We have to get better food available to students and their families,” Eagle said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years.

Eagle thinks school lunches are part of the problem, and his latest research, published recently in the American Heart Journal, bears that out.

The University of Michigan study followed more than 1,000 Michigan sixth-graders and found that students who ate school meals were 29 times more likely to be obese than those who brought their lunch.

Eagle said community activism through programs such as Chefs Move to Schools could be part of the solution. “I do think we’re going to see changes,” he said.

“I think this Titanic is going to turn. Hopefully, before we hit the iceberg.”

Bruce Alexander, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program, stressed that chefs are not expected to overhaul a school’s lunch menu. The program is about getting chefs in front of kids and getting kids to think about healthy eating.

“Any engagement we have at this point is a success story,” Alexander said. “It’s totally about raising awareness.”

Brownsburg private chef Beth Ruble, who attended the White House rally in June, came home determined to become involved.

Ruble volunteers in two fourth-grade classrooms in Brownsburg Schools, often bringing in fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices to teach students about fresh food.

For example, she will offer the children a whiff of fresh basil and encourage them to recall what food they associate with the smell. The children have examined cinnamon bark and whole nutmeg to discover what part of the plant such spices come from.

It has been educational for Ruble as well.

Ruble said she expected some students to be unfamiliar with the pomegranates she brought in, but some students had never eaten a fresh orange — or even an apple.

“It was a little shocking to me, a little eye-opening,” she said.

Her experience makes clear the need for greater nutritional awareness among today’s schoolchildren, Ruble said.

Still, the program has had its challenges.

More than 2,000 chefs and schools have registered for the program. But because of privacy concerns, Alexander said, contact information for individual chefs is not made available to schools.

So once chefs register at, they must make the effort to find a registered school. About 575 chef/school matches are listed on the program’s website.

In the Indianapolis area, about two dozen schools but only about a dozen chefs have signed up — which leaves interested schools waiting for a phone call.

Karen Howes, general manager for Westfield Washington Schools’ Sodexo food service, didn’t want to wait.

After about a month with no response to her registration, she recruited an employee’s husband, Bruce Starr, executive chef at McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant in Indianapolis.

The cafeteria menu at Westfield Intermediate School already meets or exceeds federal nutrition requirements, Howes said. However, because of expected changes mandated by the recently passed Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, she is trying to incorporate more beans into the cafeteria menus. That’s where she hoped Starr could help.

The chef recently conducted a “bean tasting,” offering samples of black beans and rice, garbanzo beans and a honey-bean salad. Students then voted on which option they preferred.

The results were clear.

“They liked the black beans and rice the best,” Howes said.

While administrators such as Howes may want a chef’s advice on tweaking a cafeteria menu, others have asked for help guiding students’ food choices outside school.

Midwest Academy of Indiana, for example, a small private school in Carmel, asked local chef Kimberly Stanek for a presentation on healthier desserts.

Stanek, executive chef at The Westin hotel in Indianapolis, obliged with a demonstration of a lower-calorie version of cheesecake that was easy enough for students to make at home.

Edy Stoughton, head of the Midwest Academy, said the demonstration was “a wonderful opportunity” for her students, about a third of whom have learning challenges related to Asperger’s syndrome.

“This to me,” Stoughton said, “was something that was really good for the whole child.”

Knowing the issues administrators are concerned about, said chefs, makes it easier to offer help.

For example, Victoria Davis, who is a resident district manager for Chartwells, Warren Township Schools’ food service provider, said her goal for the Chefs Move to Schools program is not only to provide students with more appealing, nutritious menu options. She also wants to encourage children to try new foods and offer input.

During one recent lunch period, Lee offered samples of his spicy orange chicken, a popular dish that eventually may appear as a lunch item.

“It had a nice taste to it,” said senior student council officer Eduardo Salas, who helped distribute surveys about the dish. “I think people who like spicy food would like it.”

Junior Emily Hancock, also on the student council, said having the chef in the cafeteria offering free samples is an effective way to encourage students to try new things.

“And the chef hat,” she added, “helps to attract attention.”


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In Online Games, a Path to Young Consumers

April 20, 2011, The New York Times

By Matt Richtel

Deep into one of her favorite computer games, Lesly Lopez, 10, moves her mouse to click on a cartoon bee. She drags and drops it into an empty panel, creating her own comic strip.

Lesly likes this online game so much that she plays twice a week, often e-mailing her creations to friends. “I always send them to my cousin in Los Angeles,” she said.

But this is not just a game — it is also advertising. Create a Comic, as it is called, was created by General Mills to help it sell Honey Nut Cheerios to children.

Like many marketers, General Mills and other food companies are rewriting the rules for reaching children in the Internet age. These companies, often selling sugar cereals and junk food, are using multimedia games, online quizzes and cellphone apps to build deep ties with young consumers. And children like Lesly are sharing their messages through e-mail and social networks, effectively acting as marketers.

When these tactics revolve around food, and blur the line between advertising and entertainment, they are a source of intensifying concern for nutrition experts and children’s advocates — and are attracting scrutiny from regulators. The Federal Trade Commission has undertaken a study of food marketing to children, due out this summer, while the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity has said one reason so many children are overweight is the way junk food is marketed.

Critics say the ads, from major companies like Unilever and Post Foods, let marketers engage children in a way they cannot on television, where rules limit commercial time during children’s programming. With hundreds of thousands of visits monthly to many of these sites, the ads are becoming part of children’s daily digital journeys, often flying under the radar of parents and policy makers, the critics argue.

“Food marketers have tried to reach children since the age of the carnival barker, but they’ve never had so much access to them and never been able to bypass parents so successfully,” said Susan Linn, a psychiatry instructor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, an advocacy coalition. Ms. Linn and others point to many studies that show the link between junk-food marketing and poor diets, which are implicated in childhood obesity.

Food industry representatives call the criticism unfair and say they have become less aggressive in marketing to children in the Internet era, not more so.

Since 2006, 17 major corporations — including General Mills, McDonald’s, Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Burger King — have taken a voluntary pledge to reduce marketing of their least nutritious brands to children, an effort they updated last year to include marketing on mobile devices.

The pledge says the companies, if they choose to market to children, will only advertise food choices that are “better for you,” said Elaine D. Kolish, director of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, an arm of the Better Business Bureau that oversees the pledge.

“Compliance is excellent,” she said of the pledge. She noted that in recent months, companies had shut down several child-centric sites, including General Mills’s popular virtual world Millsberry, while other sites have been changed to focus on adults, like those of Kellogg’s Pop Tarts and Pepsi’s Cap’n Crunch. And she said General Mills and Post Foods had cut or pledged to cut the amount of sugar in some cereals.

Only rarely do these major companies violate their pledges, she said: “It’s pretty darn infrequent and it’s not willful.”

Nutrition experts say that the voluntary pledges are fraught with loopholes, and that “better for you” is a relative term that allows companies to keep marketing unhealthful options.

Whatever criticism they may invite, the companies have good financial reason to pitch to children. James McNeal, a former marketing professor at Texas A&M University, estimates conservatively that children influence more than $100 billion in food and beverage purchases each year, and well over half of all cold cereal purchases.

Children “have power over spending in the household, they have power over the grandparents, they have power over the babysitters, and on and on and on,” said Professor McNeal, who has researched family behavior for decades and consulted for major companies on marketing to children. “All of that is finally being recognized and acknowledged.”

Some parents, like Lesly Lopez’s mother, Toribia Huerta, 26, say the online marketing is subverting their efforts to improve their children’s diets. Ms. Huerta said Lesly and her younger siblings pester her for sugary cereals they see in the games and for snacks like Baby Bottle Pops, a candy with a game site that the girl also visits often.

“They ask me for it constantly. They’re hard to resist when they whine,” Ms. Huerta said, speaking in Spanish through a translator. She blames her daughter’s love of sugar for her dental problems, including many cavities.

But Ms. Huerta also said the food sites seemed fun and safe: “They look like good games for her age.”

Games for Goods

In 1990, Congress sought to shield young people from a marketing barrage, passing a law that limits commercial time during an hour of children’s programming to 12 minutes on weekdays and 10 minutes 30 seconds on weekends, a few minutes less than the average at the time.

Current regulations also require a buffer between ads and programs so that children can tell the difference. Children’s advocates say this is important because research shows that until they are 11 or 12, children don’t really understand how advertising works.

These advocates say that on the Internet, food companies, even those that have made pledges to protect children, are blurring content and ads to promote products that can be harmful.

A 2009 report from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University found that companies used online games, puzzles and other flashy multimedia to hawk cereals ranked among the least nutritious: Lucky Charms, Trix and Honey Nut Cheerios from General Mills; Froot Loops and Apple Jacks from Kellogg; and Fruity Pebbles and Cocoa Pebbles from Post, to name a few.

“Perfect compliance with an awful standard takes you down a bad road,” said Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center.

Another study from the University of Arizona found that 68.5 percent of marketing directed at children by companies that took the pledge was for the least nutritious alternatives. And a quarter of all advertising to children comes from companies that haven’t taken the pledge, the research found.

One example is Topps, which makes Baby Bottle Pops. On the elaborate website promoting the candy, visitors play arcade games, create profiles and make buddy lists of friends.

The sites can attract substantial audiences. and, sites from McDonald’s, received a total of 700,000 visitors in February, around half of whom were under 12, according to comScore, a market research firm. The firm says 549,000 people visited the Apple Jacks site from Kellogg’s, which offers games and promotes an iPhone application called “Race to the Bowl Rally.” General Mills’s Lucky Charms site, with virtual adventures starring Lucky the Leprechaun, had 227,000 visitors in February.

Visitors to Pebbles Play from Post, the game hub for Fruity Pebbles and similar cereals, can play games and upload their picture into a postcard with Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble, then e-mail it to a friend.

Mr. Brownell said these marketing efforts were more cost-effective than TV spots because they were cheaper to produce and disseminate and were promoted by the children themselves — through word of mouth or its online equivalent. “The kids are not only recipients of marketing, they are the tools of marketing,” he said.

Kirstie Foster, a spokeswoman for General Mills, said the company was “committed to maintaining the highest standards for responsible advertising to children.” For example, she said, company sites used mostly by children under 12 urge visitors to take a break every 30 minutes. And she noted that banners on the sites identified them as advertising.

Activity or Ad?

Lesly is in fourth grade at Pathways to College, a charter school with 210 students, many of them poor, in this high-desert city on the highway between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Many of the school’s students say they have periodic and often casual online interactions with food companies. In Lesly’s class, for example, seven of 15 students said they had played games on the Baby Bottle Pop site.

In the older grades, the children interact with food marketers differently, often on Facebook or through quizzes advertised on product packaging or TV. Many sixth graders say they vote in online surveys for, say, a new flavor of Mountain Dew, or for which kind of Doritos or Cheetos they prefer — sometimes enticed by the offer of a prize.

“I voted for Jalapeno Cheddar Cheetos and I didn’t win anything, which was kind of a rip,” said Justin Elliott, 11. He said he did not think of this as advertising: “They just want to see which we like so they can make more of it.”

Justin also plays games on the Honey Nut Cheerios site, where, much as on other such sites, a small banner indicates that the visitor is being sold something. This one reads: “Hey kids, this is advertising.”

Lesly, though she plays regularly, said she had never paid attention to the banner. When it was pointed out to her, she tried to read it: “Hey kids, this is ….” She paused, then said: “I don’t know that word.”

The line between advertising and content fades further on Facebook, where users can click to “like” an activity or food and get regular updates about it, scattered among the messages and photos from friends. Aaliyah Arredondo, a seventh grader who has been a Facebook user for several years, has “liked” Oreos, Subway and Skittles (along with Hannah Montana, Rosaria Dawson and other things).

Facebook prohibits children under 13 from joining the site, but millions do by lying about their birth date. The nutrition advocates say these children become part of the audience for food marketing that the companies assert is intended only for adults.

A Susceptible Audience

Administrators at the school say students face many challenges to maintaining good diets: busy, low-income families, and lots of marketing. “They’re home alone, with no one to give them direction. They’re very susceptible to this marketing,” said the principal, Chala Salisbury. “What we’re seeing is children who are lethargic, some really heavy, but most on the heavy side. Most of the reason is diet.”

Even some critics of the food industry say parents have some responsibility to limit access to marketing and to simply say no to pleas for junk food. But they also say that the aggressive pitches wind up pitting parents against children and, at the least, putting them in a position of constantly saying no.

Kathryn Montgomery, a communications professor at American University who studies marketing to youth, calls the sum of the advertising efforts “360-degree marketing.” The TV commercials and the packaging direct people to websites, Twitter feeds, e-mail bulletins and, most recently, cellphone campaigns.

“Food marketing is really now woven into the very fabric of young people’s daily experiences and their social relationships,” said Professor Montgomery. She, along with her husband, Jeff Chester, who is executive director of the’ Center for Digital Democracy, has lobbied regulators and Congress to limit this marketing.

Professor Montgomery added: “We are just seeing the beginning of it.”

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National Park Service Director Announces Healthy Foods Strategy

April 14, 2011,

In April, National Park Service (NPS) Director Jon Jarvis announced a major new service-wide Healthy Foods Strategy, to provide healthy food options to all national park visitors.

Jarvis made the announcement as part of the Healthy Parks Healthy People US conference, a two-day forum in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area co-hosted by NPS, the Institute at the Golden Gate and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. Attended by more than 100 leaders in health care, the environment, nonprofits, government and business, participants discussed how the NPS can most effectively help drive health and wellness initiatives in America’s local, state, and national parks, and how parks can promote healthy lifestyle changes.

“The food we eat plays a critical role in our health, and providing healthy food choices is one way the NPS is working to promote healthy lifestyles,” Jarvis said. “The Healthy Foods Strategy will help ensure that our 281 million annual visitors have access to healthy, sustainable, and high-quality food at reasonable prices, while reducing our overall impact on the environment.

“This initiative furthers one of our goals of Healthy Parks Healthy People US, to educate visitors on food and potentially influence the choices they make after they leave the parks,” Jarvis added.

The first step in the NPS Healthy Foods Strategy is a partnership with the Center for Disease Control Epidemiological Service to conduct a baseline survey of the nutritional value of the food served in America’s national parks. In looking at the availability and cost of healthy foods in various regions of the country, NPS aims to make informed decisions regarding healthy foods in its concession operations and build healthy food requirements into concession contract requirements.

The NPS has already started evaluating the health and sustainability of the food served in parks. The new healthy and sustainable food program piloted at Muir Woods in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area is one of the first examples of how park concessions can effectively support healthy food choices. Food for the Parks, a new report featuring case studies from the National Park System, has been developed by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy’s Institute at the Golden Gate and is available for download at

Modeled on the international Healthy Parks Healthy People movement that started in Australia, Healthy Parks Healthy People US complements President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors initiative, a multi-agency effort that has sparked a national conversation on how to conserve open spaces and reconnect Americans to nature. In addition to its Healthy Foods Strategy, the NPS has expanded first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move program to include Let’s Move Outside Junior Ranger, and is also forging links with other relevant parks-inspired health programs, including Children & Nature, Park Prescriptions, Food for the Parks, No Child Left Inside, and others.

“America’s Great Outdoors promotes greater access to nature as a catalyst to better human and community health,” Jarvis said. Across the country, parks of all sizes are engaging in dialogues and developing programs with the healthcare community, and private sector partners including Kaiser Permanente, UnitedHealth Group and Sutter Health, have stepped forward in support of NPS goals.

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USDA Encourages Schools to Partner with Local Farms

April 27, 2011,

By April Fulton

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in April a new rule to encourage schools to partner with nearby farms as a way to get more healthy, locally-grown fruits, veggies, and more into school lunches.

Agriculture Under Secretary Kevin Concannon says the rule is “an important milestone that will help ensure that our children have access to fresh produce and other agricultural products.”

But access to healthy food doesn’t help much if kids won’t eat it, warned Alice Waters, the chef-owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA, and the founder of the Edible Schoolyard program.

The “buy local” rule is just one part of the massive Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act President Obama signed into law last December. That bill is about the biggest thing to happen to school meals since the microwave.

It sets new nutrition standards and bans whole milk. It boosts funding for meal programs by about 6 cents a meal – a hard won provision in a long battle where food stamps lost out. And it’s controversial, garnering over 130,000 public comments so far.

Per the announcement, the law encourages schools to bring in more “unprocessed locally grown and locally raised agricultural products” by allowing schools to give local providers preference when they bid for school food contracts.

By “unprocessed” the department means it’s fine to chill, freeze, peel, slice, cold pasteurize, butcher, or dehydrate the food. But cooking it or adding a bunch of preservatives is not encouraged.

The definition of “local” seems a bit more flexible. But it’s all just one tiny step on the road to addressing obesity and poor nutrition, said Waters at the Atlantic Food Summit in Washington, DC in April.

“We should certainly try to improve diets by make school lunches more nutritious and by getting the vending machines out of the hallways,” Waters said. “But we can’t be sure that kids are even eating — let alone understanding — what nourishment is all about. Kids are wary of unfamiliar foods, besides they can always buy packaged junk before and after school.”

Waters says schools need to offer credit for edible education the way they do for phys ed, science, and math. They need mandatory lunch programs, like the one in Chicago that grabbed headlines a few weeks ago. The more kids know about food and the more they have a hand in growing or preparing or serving it, the more likely they are to eat it, she says.

There are some pilot programs and funding available for these programs in the new law, but nowhere near enough, Waters says.

(More research is needed on this growing concept, for sure, but I can tell you, growing kale with a kid at my house is no guarantee it gets eaten by said kid.)

Also a bit skeptical of the USDA “buy local” rule for other reasons are the big food companies that supply school meal programs.

Jennifer Grossman, senior VP at the Dole Nutrition Institute, tells Shots she likes the administration’s efforts to encourage better school nutrition, but schools have bigger problems.

“For schools that are really very pressed on those dollars, I think that they need to be able to have access to affordable choices and sometimes those won’t be grown locally… Bananas don’t grow in Michigan,” she says.

Bananas are the cheapest items in the produce section, but they don’t grow in most of the country. Dole, Chiquita, and Del Monte control about 60 percent of the worldwide banana market.


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