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My Plate: USDA’s fresh, new image or more of the same?

June 28, 2011

by Kristin Van Busum

Earlier this month the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released its latest food symbol: a colorful plate, My Plate, a bold deviation from the food pyramid credited with perplexing the public since its inception in 1992.  On the contrary, My Plate is practical visual divided into four quarters: half represents fruits and vegetables, the other half whole grains and protein. It’s complimented with a small side of dairy.

Marion Nestle was pleased with the product, calling it a symbol that “brings it all together.” Other nutritional experts agree, claiming the symbol is a simplistic guide to enhance basic consumer understanding and nutrition education. It presents a balance of the food groups in an image that is recognizable and easily associated with the dinner table—where we should be eating (if it were only that simple). In addition to the new symbol, Choosemyplate.org is an interactive website that allows you to choose serving sizes, read about weight-loss and exercise and includes a list of basic health tips like ‘Enjoy your food, but eat less’ to balance calories.

Despite my positive reception of My Plate, its announcement is yet another reminder of the USDA’s double standard and the influence government and agribusiness have on our food choices.

The sad reality is the government continues to perpetuate the same health crises—obesity, exorbitant health care costs, chronic disease— they simultaneously attempt to combat by promoting and subsidizing the very foods it discourages us from over-consuming. The USDA invested $2 million to develop and disseminate choosemyplate.org, while just last year they teamed up with financially-strained Domino’s Pizza to create a $12 million campaign marketing pizza with 40% more cheese. Past USDA campaigns have promoted “Beef, it’s what’s for dinner!” and advertised sexy celebrities gracing magazines and billboards asking if we “Got Milk?

Not only are these already-affordable-foods advertised with the aid of the government, these food industries will remain the superpowers they are as long as their products are made cheaper through government subsidies. The beef industry relies on our fast food dependence to make a profit. The corn industry remains vested in our frequent consumption of cereals, chips ahoy, soda and ‘fruit juice’ laden with corn-syrup. These low-nutrient products come wrapped in colorful packaging with familiar slogans, uber-confusing nutrition labels and are sold at every convenience and corner store. Even the most resilient individuals with ‘self-control’ and nutritional knowledge don’t stand a chance in the unhealthful food environment as it exists today.

My Plate is a temporary distraction from the deep-seated issues that are the real cause of our health crises. Until the USDA re-evaluates its relationship with the food industry—less than 1% of food subsidies go to fruits and vegetables, while well over half go to dairy and meat industries— and stops bombarding us with a barrage of contradictory messages while glossing over our real food problems, our waistlines and life-expectancies don’t stand a chance.

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Kristin Van Busum received her MPA in Health Policy Analysis at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University in 2010. She currently works at RAND Corp. on variety of research projects addressing health promotion, disease prevention and quality and access to care.  Prior to joining RAND, Kristin was a Research Data Associate at NYU School of Medicine working on projects that examined effects of calorie labeling and patient decision-making from a behavioral economics perspective. She is passionate about food policy issues and promoting health through nutrition and education. 

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