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On Being A “Realist”

I want to share the exchange pasted below that I had with a Small Bites reader earlier today to help clarify my strong position not only on My Plate, but on other nutrition-related issues.  I find it troublesome that finding fault with offered solutions is often times viewed through a lens of dissatisfaction and pessimism, rather than an acknowledgment that the offered solutions either have flaws or do not really attempt to solve the problem at hand.  It would be disingenuous on my part to pretend that my intense hunger for change to our food system can be abated with a smattering of bread crumbs.

If I were cynical, I wouldn’t take the time to inform myself of — or blog about — the issues that affect our food system.  I would simply shrug and say, “Nothing is ever going to get fixed, why should I bother?”  I consider myself a realist because I believe that if the problem is approached from a different angle (one that focuses on policies and laws), we would see more substantial change.

Reader Seth Lawton writes (note: I have edited his comment somewhat; you can see the full one in the comments section of the post right below this one):

“I read your post [on My Plate], and followed you and @appetite4profit [Michele Simon] tweeting the press conference, and all I could think to myself was,’ Wow, I’m on the same side but they’re so incredibly cynical and negative’.

I don’t think any guideline will be perfect, and MyPlate isn’t a homerun, but it’s a step forward in so many ways. To wit:

- Plants dominate!
- The visual is so much clearer than the rainbow-striped pyramid.
- Dessert is nowhere in sight. Must be optional!
- An unequivocal ‘eat less’ message. That never happens! The word ‘more’ is absent.
- Water instead of sugary drinks? Pinch me, please.

You decry food industry lobbying, but where was Big Soda and the sugar refiners when the part about avoiding sugary drinks was inserted? If meatpackers had their way, forget the Trivial Pursuit wedges—there would be a silhouette of a steak taking up most of the plate.

And then you point out that MyPlate’s message doesn’t jibe with other actions from our government, but for goodness sake, Andy, that’s not MyPlate’s fault! It just got born. Why not say what it’s doing right and work backwards to bring those many other government actions into line with what MyPlate does well?

Here is my response:

“Seth,

I do not consider myself cynical or negative, simply a realist. Our food system is broken, and rather than attempt to fix and rebuild structures, we’re ooh-ing and aah-ing over how awesome that new painted wall looks — it’s the equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns. I have acknowledged that My Plate is more “relatable” than the pyramid, and that vegetables are given more prominence. However, we can not forget that we must fix the food system.

Slapping on a new house of paint on — or mowing the lawn of — a dillapidated house that is unlivable does not solve the root problem. We can not expect change unless we show that what passes for “progress” is anything but. How else do you think the civil rights movement, or Stonewall, got started?   People were fed up and said “NO MORE”.

To answer your points:

1) Plants also dominated in the other two food pyramids, so how is My Plate an improvement?
2) The visual is clearer, yes — I stated this in my second paragraph
3) Dessert is not in sight, sure… but aren’t most “kids’ cereals” desserts?
4) “Eat less” was already in the Dietary Guidelines. Yes, “My Plate” restates it, but it is not unique to the plate. Also, the “eat less” message is not depicted in the illustration.
5) Same with “water instead of sugary drinks” — not depicted in the actual illustration.  And, again, it’s a moot point when schools serve chocolate milk every day.

I am not blaming My Plate for anything, all I am saying is “forget this shiny new toy and keep demanding better policies from our government!”.”

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13 Comments

  1. Seth said on June 2nd, 2011

    Andy,

    I’m flattered you turned my message to you into a post. That’s the best way to ensure a reader’s comment gets read! (@HealthScene, btw, for more)

    I didn’t acknowledge it before, but you’re a great sport for putting up with all the comments hurled your way. Some bloggers don’t post them at all, let alone offer thoughtful responses. So thank you for that.

    Here’s the central point: mine is a “more flies with honey” message. Now, I work in marketing (not food industry), so some would say I’m not qualified to be a realist at all, but try to stay with me. In my world there are lots of criticisms (fair ones!) to make about the status quo, competitors, and so on. But I always have to deliver a message that’s positive and forward-looking. Why? Because otherwise I know people 1) tune out, and 2) don’t care.

    I read your blog—it’s great. I’ve read Michele Simon’s book—great also. I like you guys and agree with so much of what you have to say, so why do the blogs and tweets come across as such a turn-off sometimes? It has to be in the tone. I think the tone resonates, but almost exclusively with the choir. Are there broken food systems, perverse incentives, and confusing nutrition messages in our world today? Absolutely! I just think you’d do better to reach a new audience if your message was more relatable, to borrow your word describing MyPlate.

    You slathered on the metaphors like Paula Deen at Mayonnaisefest, but most people don’t see the current reality of food as the Titanic sinking or the next civil rights movement. Not even close. Too often comparisons like that sound shrill and hyperbolic. Food may be all of that magnitude and more, but you’ve got to meet your audience halfway. That doesn’t mean softening the message. On the contrary, make it sharp and direct, but let’s make it positive.

    Sometimes we come across as finger-wagging, eye-rolling, pedantic, and negative, but that approach will never win. I think what will win is coming across as authoritative, but positive and measured. There is a lot that needs to get fixed, and most of that will come in small, additive steps, and by finding more allies in everyday people.

  2. Andy Bellatti said on June 2nd, 2011

    Hey Seth,

    I chose to post our exchange because I thought it touched upon a very important issue, and I was afraid it wouldn’t be read quite as much if it sat in the “comments” section. I hope you didn’t take it as me “singling” you out or anything of the sort. I also posted it because I am sure you are not the only one with that line of thinking, and I wanted to have a chance to share my viewpoint with everyone rather than reply to similar comments as they came in.

    I think discourse and conversation that deals with the issues (rather than the people involved) can be very helpful and clarifying. I have to say that my own viewpoint on this matter has changed over the years. Four or five years ago, I would have been more satisfied with My Plate. Mind you, again, my main issue isn’t so much with the plate itself, but with the notion that “My Plate will help people eat better.” Again — it’s in the marketing.

    But I have to tell you — after visiting food deserts that were a 15 minute subway ride from where I lived, walking into schools and seeing students offered complete junk on a daily basis because of outdated USDA rules and the fact that the school lunch program gets no money, etc… I can’t help but scoff at My Plate. The average person may not see the sinking Titanic because they aren’t exposed to the things I and other people in the health field have seen…. the hospitals that serve junky food to ill patients, the teenagers with high cholesterol, the many individuals who truly believe Froot Loops with added fiber are “healthy”, and so on and so forth.

    This is one issue you and I have a different viewpoint on, and I’m glad we gave each other the space to express oneself.

  3. Val said on June 2nd, 2011

    I like the honest back and forth here, Andy…very good points made by both you and Seth! Thanks for sharing this enlightened discussion in a forthright manner, very refreshing!

  4. Eric Marcotte, MD said on June 2nd, 2011

    Wow, guys, good stuff. I agree with the thanks both ways that you can be civil and open yet disagree. It sounds like approach and personality rather than disagreeing about the importance or nature of the issues.

    I hope neither one of you changes the other (unlikely as you both seem pretty strong-willed!) because a wider variety of voices and approaches can only help the cause we all seem to share. Who in the know would deny our national health is in crisis? Who in that group could deny that food, choices and availability are the largest contributor to the crisis?

    Maybe all involved would also agree that whatever our personal take on My Plate (ooh, pretty colors!) more is needed. Bringing more attention to a critical issue seems like it is always a good. Getting our government to move in a more substantial way to bring food rationality back would be far beyond good.

    Unfortunately, other issues distract Congress and much wealthier donors than little ole us have the attention of individual Congress members. Maybe we should throw all our collective energy into campaign finance reform instead! Perhaps then Congress would be more independent of industry and able to cut corn subsidies and properly reign in advertising.

    Until our dreams come true, keep working away. We never know when one conversation, one post, one comment will be the spark for one person’s change. What My Plate can’t accomplish on the large scale, one-person-at-a-time conversion may. Blog on!

  5. Andy Bellatti said on June 2nd, 2011

    All good points, Eric. Thanks for contributing; really liked your take.

    It’s sad, but unloaded discussions that are truly about letting the other person make their points and explanations is a rarity in the media these days. It’s why I’ve always tried to make this blog’s comment space a “safe place” where, as long as people stick to the issues and take the time to explain themselves (and understand that a comment may lead to a response, and so on and so forth), all comments are welcome.

  6. Mrs. Q said on June 2nd, 2011

    Andy,
    The best thing about you is that you are uncompromising. You believe something to the fullest, you boldly state it, and then defend it without shame. I love that about you. You are a maverick.

    (I agree with you by the way)

  7. Seth said on June 2nd, 2011

    It is a good discussion isn’t it? How refreshing to have a grown-up conversation online. That almost never happens. It’s always comforting to know the adults are tending the shop. And maybe even better news—I’m not sure I disagree with anything Andy says in the follow-up post above. We’re not so much different at all! As the marketer, I’m just programmed to strive for messaging the appeals best to the mass market for the strongest impact. With all that common ground, maybe we point our guns outside the fort, as they say. Hope we get to have more exchanges soon, Andy.

  8. Andy Bellatti said on June 2nd, 2011

    Thank you, Mrs. Q. One thing I learned from you is that sometimes the best thing that can come out of us stating bold and strong opinions may not be changed minds, but intelligent discussions, raised awareness, and furthering the thought process for everyone involved.

  9. Andy Bellatti said on June 2nd, 2011

    Seth,

    I think it’s really important to keep communication lines open. Something that often makes me sad is that while different groups (ie: the Paleo diet people “versus” the raw vegans “versus” the low-fat people) spend energy debating things like whether cooked carrots are “bad” or whether we were meant to consume oatmeal, food companies and many industries are banding together to get their message across. I think that despite individual differences, many of us have one thing in common – we want real and healthful food, we don’t want chemicals in the food supply, we want trans fats out of the system, we want children to eat better, we don’t want artificial dyes in the food supply, etc. It’s important for people in different camps to have some sort of communication going so they can at least point out similar beliefs/goals and work together towards them. After all, does ANYONE (Atkins or vegan or anywhere in between) think factory farming is a “good” thing?

  10. Brandon said on June 3rd, 2011

    I am just hoping for, when you take criticisms on things like MyPlate, you offer more possible solutions to the problems. That way your viewpoints won’t come across as so negative, when that may otherwise occur. When I’m standing beside you at the rally in Washington DC, I don’t just want to be shouting with you “the plate is just a silly slab of paint”. I want to have ideas for the future that we came up with and worked on together.

    Thats all.

  11. Andy Bellatti said on June 3rd, 2011

    Brandon,

    I feel like I have identified some solutions (ie: shifting crop subsidies to fruits and vegetables, implementing recommendations to “eat real food” [hence the bit about artificial sweeteners and dyes], focusing on ‘calcium-rich foods’ rather than just dairy, etc). I think I explained why I characterize My Plate as a coat of paint on a dillapidated house — it is my belief that more energy needs to go into the issues at the root of our broken food system.

    Eric made some good points above, too (ie: campaign finance reform).

  12. Melissa said on June 5th, 2011

    Great discussion…. good points made. Thanks gentlemen. Food for thought =)

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