Thursday, June 02, 2011

First Lady Unveils USDA's MyPlate Campaign

"MyPlate is simple enough for kids to learn and use the rest of their lives," First Lady says...and that includes Sasha and Malia Obama...
It just got a little bit easier for kids and their families to follow the Let's Move! campaign and try to eat like First Lady Michelle Obama. In Washington today, Mrs. Obama unveiled "MyPlate," the federal government's new primary food group icon, designed to be an easy-to-understand visual cue to encourage people to adopt eating habits consistent with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Surgeon General Regina Benjamin joined Mrs. Obama to reveal the new icon (above).

The brightly colored dinner plate replaces USDA's previous MyPyramid symbol, and resembles a child's block set: It's a color-coded plate that actually has no food on it, but instead contains a written description of the items that should fill each segment: Fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and protein, with a side of low-fat dairy. It will be used across the federal government as well as by privately held food companies, schools, markets, restaurants, and by anyone else dealing with food. It's even being used at the White House, Mrs. Obama said.

"We are implementing this in our household," Mrs. Obama said. "We’ve had a conversation about sitting down with Malia and Sasha and helping them think about how to choose their proportions, and this plate is a huge tool."

Mrs. Obama was backdropped by a huge image of the "huge tool" projected on a screen as she spoke to an enthusiastic crowd made up of Administration officials, food industry executives, healthy eating advocates, nutritionists, school food professionals--and her team from the White House.

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommend that the food plate at every meal should be half-filled with fruit and vegetables, and the icon reflects this.

"It’s an image that can be reinforced and practiced at breakfast, lunch, and at dinner, no matter how old we are," Mrs. Obama said. "This is a quick, simple reminder for all of us to be more mindful of the foods that we're eating and as a mom, I can already tell how much this is going to help parents across the country."

There's no measuring or weighing of foods required when preparing meals, Mrs. Obama pointed out, which makes it easy for busy parents to feed their children healthier foods.

"When mom or dad comes home from a long day of work, we're already asked to be a chef, a referee, a cleaning crew. So it's tough to be a nutritionist, too," Mrs. Obama said. "Parents don’t have the time to measure out exactly three ounces of chicken or to look up how much rice or broccoli is in a serving. long as they’re [kids] eating proper portions, as long as half of their meal is fruits and vegetables alongside their lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy, then we’re good."

There were plates of real food on display at the press conference, illustrating how the visual icon can be translated into reality: Chunks of cheese beside corn on the cob, whole grain breads, rings of peppers, small heads of broccoli, slices of chicken, oatmeal, yogurt, bananas, sweet potaotes.

MyPlate is "a huge improvement" over USDA's MyPyramid icon, according to Dr. Marion Nestle, an acclaimed nutritionist and author, and the Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University.

"Unlike MyPyramid, it’s based on food (mostly), is easy to understand, and doesn’t require use of a computer," Nestle told Obama Foodorama. "I particularly like the way you get to pile whatever foods you like on the plate as long as they fit in the sectors, and you don’t have to worry about portion numbers or sizes, just plate sizes."

Mrs. Obama likes that idea, too.

"MyPlate is simple enough for kids to learn and use the rest of their lives," Mrs. Obama said. "That's how easy it is."

Making it even easier: There's a new website, And Sec. Vilsack explains the icon in a new video.

Nestle, however, isn't completely happy with MyPlate: She dislikes the use of the word "protein" on the icon.

“'Protein'” is just plain wrong, which is what happens when you switch from foods to nutrients," Nestle said. "I suppose USDA didn’t want to call it the meat group because it includes beans, poultry, and fish as well as meat, but the meat industry has worked tirelessly to equate meat with protein and meat producers should love this."

Nestle worried that the food industry in general will use the icon to market foods, but USDA has issued a ten-page "MyPlate Style Guide and Conditions of Use" booklet to attempt to control its messaging tool. The booklet warns ALL users against altering the image in any way--no changes in typeface, color, or position of the food groups on the plate are allowed, for instance. and use of the icon doesn't imply that USDA endorses the food, according to the booklet.

"No matter what USDA does, the food industry will figure out a way to use it [MyPlate] to sell more food," Nestle said. "A bottom-line focus always trumps public health, alas."

The produce industry, which has been thrilled that Mrs. Obama's Let's Move! campaign has put a sharp focus on consuming more fruits and vegetables, is very happy with the new icon, if United Fresh Produce Association Vice President Ray Gilmer is any indication.

"The new dietary guidance icon could be a tipping point in how Americans literally visualize what they should eat," Gilmer said.

United Fresh is one of the leading partners for Mrs. Obama's Lets Move Salad Bars to Schools project, and has already placed dozens of kid-sized salad bars in schools across the US.

"We'll be working with communities, partners of every sector, and using social media to get the word out" about MyPlate, Mrs. Obama said. The First Lady's Senior Policy Advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives, Sam Kass, begins those efforts today, with an afternoon conference call with reporters that will focus on how MyPlate can be used at home to guide the creation of family meals.

As she closed her remarks, Mrs. Obama was quick to point out that while the new icon continues the forward movement of the Let's Move! campaign, there's still miles to go before she sleeps, so to speak.

"The new icon isn’t going to end our epidemic of childhood obesity on its own," Mrs. Obama said, adding that there's plenty of work to do on making healthy foods more affordable and accessible, as well as getting kids to be active for an hour a day.

"And it’s certainly not going to take the responsibility off of us as parents to make sure that we’re making the right choices for our families," Mrs. Obama said about the iconic limitations. "That's still on us."

The icon cost about $2 million and months of work to design and to create, according to USDA sources. It was created as part of the recommendations in the 2010 Report from the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, the guiding document for the Let's Move! campaign, which has has one overriding goal: Returning America to a childhood obesity rate of 5% by 2030, down from the current level of a little more than 17%.

"To encourage children to eat healthier, we’re setting a goal to increase the amount of fruits that children consume to 75 percent of the recommended level by 2015," Mrs. Obama noted when the Report was released. "We want to increase that again to 85 percent by the year 2020, and then by the year 2030 we hope to be at 100 percent. We’re using a similar scale to increase the percentage of vegetables that our kids are eating as well."

*The full transcript of Mrs. Obama's remarks IS HERE.

*Getty photo