'Hunger in America': A Final Review

Marion Nestle answers questions about the documentary, plus shares her thoughts


My monthly Food Matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle:

Q: I forced myself to watch all four hours of HBO’s Weight of the Nation. I get it that obesity is a scary problem and I’m supposed to be eating less. What I don’t get is how I’m supposed to do that when food companies can do what they want and the government lets them.

A: I am with you on this one. I also looked at the website (theweightofthenation.hbo.com) and a report from the Institute of Medicine, "Accelerating Progress in Obesity Prevention: Solving the Weight of the Nation." These all are components of a public-private partnership campaign to bring the personal and economic costs of obesity to national attention.

As the SF Chronicle’s David Wiegand put it in his Datebook review (see: sfg.ly/KO2vgI), the show "pulls no punches, spares neither the multibillion-dollar food and advertising industries nor public officials for not only failing to fix the problem but actually making it worse."

I thought the series focused too much on what you have to do on your own to manage your weight: take small steps, set realistic goals, focus on portion control, monitor your calorie intake.
I wish it had spent as much time on countering the actions of the food industry, called by Kelly Brownell of Yale’s Rudd Center as "powerful, pernicious, and predatory."

I also wish it had been more courageous in demanding that government help check the excesses of food industry marketing to make it easier for Americans to cope with the social, economic, and business drivers of obesity that the series documented so well.

I saw that courage in an accompanying video for kids, which won’t be shown nationally until the fall. Watch for it. School kids in a Rethinkers club in New Orleans wanted to improve the lunches in their school. They went into action and figured out how to make the system work for them. They succeeded by learning to "speak truth to power" and "hold feet to the fire."

Why aren’t adults doing the same? For an explanation, take a look at the institute’s report. Its recommendations do speak some truth to power. Although its number one goal promotes physical activity (a thoroughly uncontroversial recommendation), its number two is to fix the environment to make healthier food options routine and easy, especially by discouraging consumption of soft drinks.
As for holding feet to fire, the report warns that if companies don’t adopt nutrition standards for kids’ marketing within two years, policymakers should consider making them mandatory.

Consider? Weight of the Nation showed how the food industry reacted when the Federal Trade Commission tried to propose voluntary standards.

In two years? The institute already gave the food industry two years to act — six years ago. Its 2006 "Food Marketing to Children and Youth" report stated that if the industry didn’t stop advertising junk foods on children’s television programs within two years, Congress should legislate marketing standards.
In 1968, the CBS television documentary Hunger in America shocked the nation and galvanized Congress to pass legislation to reduce poverty and malnutrition.

Weight of the Nation is equally shocking. It impressively and compellingly defines the problem of obesity, its consequences and its causes, personal and societal.

But I wish the series — and the Institute of Medicine — had been able to rise above the politics and say more about how we as a society could do better to improve school food, limit the relentless marketing of sodas and junk foods, and make it easier for everyone to afford and have access to healthier foods.
Food companies are businesses. In today’s investment economy, they must not only make a profit but must increase the profit every 90 days. Business imperatives mean that they could help make healthier choices easier, but won’t unless forced to. That’s what New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed ban on big sodas is trying to do (see: sfg.ly/L45K0t).

At the very least, I’m hoping the HBO program will encourage viewers to press for political action to prevent obesity. If it does, history will judge this documentary to be as important a democratizing influence on our society as was Hunger in America.

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