Thursday, February 24, 2011

America’s Food Image Needs to Get a Move On

(cross-posted from a class assignment to write an op-ed)

As Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative to eliminate obesity within one generation celebrated its one-year anniversary last week, it has yet to shake its critics. Most recently, Rush Limbaugh decried the First Lady as a hypocrite on his radio show Tuesday for indulging in short ribs while in Vail, Colorado for the long weekend. Yet it’s no wonder some have cited the First Lady’s project as an example of “nanny state” interventions; should she finally solve the age-old question of how to get kids to eat their vegetables, parents the world over might pronounce her a modern-day Mary Poppins.

IMG_5164 + IMG_5380= Poppins ?

I am not a parent, however, and probably should not conjecture on the role of government in parent-child mealtime struggles. Rather, as an international communication student who looks at the way food represents and constructs messages about culture, I see in the First Lady’s campaign an as-yet unrecognized potential to reform international perceptions of American food, and of Americans themselves.

While critics of Michelle Obama’s initiative deride what they perceive as the elimination of freedom of choice, as a nation we have failed to see that our underinvestment in a healthy food system has larger international implications than our individual eating decisions. America has some of the most talented chefs in the world, some of the most bountiful produce belts, and a whole holiday dedicated to (let’s be honest) stuffing ourselves silly. Yet no American city made it into the top 5 of the Anholt-GFK Roper City Brand index cities for eating in 2009, based on the impressions of 10,000 people representing 20 countries. Ask a foreigner what American food is, and they’ll likely say something about pizza, hamburgers, French fries, etc. They might mention processed foods or fast food, or simply give the one-word answer, “McDonalds.” Some people (probably French) might scoff and say with a sneer, “There is no American cuisine.”

To take one example of how the Let’s Move initiative can change these perceptions, consider the national school lunch program. Founded in 1946, the program provided lunch every day to more than 31.3 million children in 2009. School lunches play an integral role in ensuring that, per Michelle Obama’s vision, government subsidized meals for kids do not contribute to rising rates of childhood obesity. Yet, if the recent Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution TV program is any indication, school lunch administrators currently fail at this task so completely that, as with most things, we apparently need to call in the real experts: the British. With all due respect to the Naked Chef and his countrymen, that foggy grey isle has hardly been known as a historical hotbed of haute or even healthy cuisine, what with its mushy peas, boiled beef, and beans on toast.

Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative is an opportunity to reform not only what the world thinks about American food, but what they, by extension, think about Americans. What message do we send to the world when the most prosperous nation spends less than $1 per eligible child for ingredients for lunch? How little do we value American children that they get the cast-offs of large industrial food companies, not because these foods are nutritious, but because they can’t be sold elsewhere? And who is to take on the patriotic American torch when we are seeing the first generation of kids expected to live shorter lives than their parents due to diet-related disease?

Americans are often criticized for lacking a real culture, and thus for lacking a real cuisine. But a national school lunch program that reinforces the vision of a fit and healthy youth can be a start in building a national food identity that conveys more than just overindulgence, laziness, and convenience. Some might scoff at the idea of increasing America’s international prowess through reformed school lunch programs, but soft power matters. How the rest of the world sees us invest in our children’s health sends a message about who will be leading this country in the future. And though it is a bitter pill to swallow that we have thus far underinvested our energy and resources in properly nourishing our kids, now is the time to demonstrate that we are up to the task, and don’t mind saving that spoonful of sugar for special occasions.