Bettina Elias Siegel’s “Kid Food” Explains My Daughter’s Love Affair with a Fast Food Chain

March 4, 2020 | 6:47 pm
Rebecca Boehm
Former Contributor

I’m not a purist about much when it comes to parenting, and that’s by design. And so, I confess: on occasion, our family indulges in a fast food meal, mostly out of what feels like necessity—think ill-planned long car rides or exhaustion after a stomach bug that started at 1 AM. The feasibility of running into a grocery store for those last two dinner ingredients changes A LOT when you have a small child and a car seat. Sometimes it even feels like a treat, especially when life has gotten so busy and out of control that something simple and easy is just what the doctor ordered. I imagine, too, that plenty of parents out of necessity lean on a fast-food trip to make the kids smile or to just get through the day.

I know there are problems with fast food. There are the unfair and downright despicable labor practices that hurt people who harvest the ingredients or the people who prepare the food in restaurants. There are issues with the supply chain. Of course, the nutritional quality (or lack thereof) of the food is problematic, as we all well know. Without a doubt, fast food restaurants need to clean up their act on a lot of fronts.

We don’t eat fast food that much, partly because of the reasons above. Even so, I was quite surprised a couple of weeks ago when my preschool-age daughter declared her favorite restaurant to be McDonald’s. Could just a few McVisits explain her love affair with the golden arches? Could she have fallen head over heals for the Happy Meals because we drive past McDonald’s every day on the way to school? Call me naïve, but I was surprised.

Funnily enough, around the same time my daughter disclosed her crush on McDonald’s, I got my hands on a copy of Bettina Elias Siegel’s new book Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World.

Siegel is passionate about children’s health. An attorney by training, she turned to advocacy, pushing back against the junk food forces with a blog called The Lunch Tray. Since The Lunch Tray’s humble beginnings, Siegel has successfully led nationally recognized campaigns against pink slime in school meals. In another she forced McDonald’s to pull the plug on a public-school program that promoted a film about the healthfulness of their food. And it all started when she learned about how bad her kid’s school lunch was.

So here are my top four reasons why I really liked Kid Food and why I urge you to read it. I’d especially encourage you to read this book if you’re a parent, just like me, who is struggling to understand how and why your little one’s food preferences unfold as they do.

1. It’s focused on how advertising is used to get kids hooked on junk food

Food marketing is fairly straightforward, especially to an economist: it increases demand for a product. My recent blog explains why advertising and marketing can be such a crucial tool for food companies to turn a buck. And no doubt, every company has the right to make a profit. But Kid Food makes a strong case that many companies have taken the profit motive way too far, and in doing so put at risk our children’s long-term health.

Siegel’s focus on marketing is sorely needed, as many books about food system issues geared towards the general public don’t emphasize it enough. Further, in food policy and advocacy circles these days, much of the discussion about helping people make better food choices centers on food access, which is undeniably a problem for many people and communities. If buying high-quality fresh veggies is hard (i.e. you have to schlep all the way across town for them or it’s too expensive), you’re probably not going to eat them very often. At the same time, emerging research has demonstrated that our nutritional inequality problem may be less a function of our food environment and much more about what we’ve learned and loved to eat over the course of our life. One thing that strongly shapes our likes and dislikes: marketing and advertising exposure. If it didn’t work, food companies wouldn’t spend billions every year doing it.

By focusing on food marketing and advertising, Seigel’s book also illuminates a crucial fact: Black and Hispanic children in particular are bombarded with advertising geared towards highly processed, unhealthy foods. The UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity has documented how food and beverage companies target children of color with marketing for their least nutritious products such as fast-food, candy, and sugary drinks. We need to talk about and take action on addressing discriminatory food marketing to children of color much more than we do now. Thankfully, Seigel brings attention to this in Kid Food.

2. It documents food marketing gone wild in our public schools

In her book, Siegel describes one of the more egregious examples of food marketing in public schools: the Domino’s Smart Slice program. It allows schools to have pizza delivered directly to cafeterias and served to kids in Domino’s branded pizza boxes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against the occasional school pizza party, but that’s not what this is about. It’s about Domino’s increasing demand for their products by indoctrinating children at an early age. No doubt about it, these companies know that schools provide a captive audience for brand exposure ad nauseam. Unsurprisingly, Domino’s takes it a step farther to ensure repeated brand exposure by creating a loyalty program for Smart Slices. Schools can “redeem points” to purchase Domino’s merchandise and additional cafeteria signage. According to Siegel, this isn’t just a pilot program; it’s widespread. Smart Slices operates in thousands of schools across forty-seven states.

Another example described in Kid Food is about how some school food service directors play into the school-based brand exposure game. Food service directors are a hard-working bunch, under tremendous pressure to keep their operations in the black given the limited funding they have to produce healthy school lunches. This is especially true in low-income districts where a greater proportion of children rely on school meal programs just to get enough daily calories. However, according to the most recent USDA data, the federal government gives schools no more than $3.65 to make a single school lunch. So, some directors have gotten creative by recreating a fast food restaurant environment in the cafeteria. Siegel describes her sleuthing of food service director blogs, where directors talk about how they brand school meals like fast food. School burgers are labeled “Big Mac” and a bowl of chicken with gravy is called the “KFC Famous Bowl”.  These tactics boost school meal sales, keeping the programs afloat financially.

Besides Domino’s deliveries and fast food fake-outs, Siegel describes in the perfect amount of detail how kids are exposed to a plethora of food brands through the cafeteria’s a la carte line. In addition to school meals, kids can buy a la carte branded snack foods, pizza, nachos, and the like. The 2010 Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act—the law governing the nutritional quality of food served and sold in schools—put stringent limits on what could be sold a la carte, representing a significant leap forward for school nutrition standards.

Unfortunately, food companies scrambled to reformulate their products to meet the new nutrition guidelines by creating copycat items. Copycat packaging looks similar to what would be seen on standard products, but the food inside the look-alike items must meet the more stringent nutrition guidelines, as Siegel explains. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to conclude that food companies did this to ensure continued brand exposure to their captive audience in schools. And it worked. Sure, the nutrition standards were slightly better, but research has indicated that these new items did nothing for children’s health, and instead likely benefitted brands with a newfound health halo. That is, kids may now rightly assume that the healthier version in school is also better for them when they buy it outside of school. As Seigel smartly concludes, “Each time they see these products in their schools, they receive a powerful, implicit message that this kind of branded fast food and junk food should be a normal part of their daily or weekly diet.”

The book also talks about the tactics food companies use to expose children to brands out of schools. As Siegel reports in Chapter 4, “Pester Power”, the Federal Trade Commission discovered that food and beverage industries spent $1.8 billion in 2009 to market their brands to kids. You may be thinking that parents hold the purse strings, so they can just say no to kid desires roused by advertising. But if you’re a parent, you know that assumption is wrong—very wrong. Siegel confirms what parents know with data: US children under twelve influence $500 billion in household food purchases every year. What is more, data indicate that children three and up spend $200 billion of their own money on food each year. In the same chapter, Siegel quotes a recent food marketing report which says companies should try to capture kids before the age of six, because that’s when brand loyalty begins.

3. It exposes the failings of our elected leaders to stand up for children

Siegel describes USDA’s 2010 attempt to close a silly loophole in the National School Lunch Program. For some time, schools could count two tablespoons of tomato paste in a pizza slice as a full serving of vegetables. I know tomatoes are vegetable-like, but would you ever serve your child two tablespoons of tomato paste as a vegetable at dinner? I think the answer is no.

Unfortunately, USDA’s very pragmatic reform efforts to close the loophole were thwarted by an industry group representing ConAgra and Schwan, two major suppliers of frozen pizza for school meals. And they got A LOT of help from both Democratic and Republican US Senators. With this example, Kid Food gets me asking tough questions: is the profit of a couple companies really more important than getting kids to eat healthy? As you read Kid Food and ask yourself these questions, you’ll get angry. Fortunately, Siegel brings levity at just the right moments throughout the book. She digs up a Daily Show clip about pizza-sauce-is-a-vegetable-gate in which Jon Stewart quips: “It’s not democracy, it’s DiGiorno.”

Siegel’s research digs up more noteworthy instances in which our elected officials have failed to protect our children’s health. For example, in 2009, a Who’s Who of food companies banded together voluntarily to address the dangers of food marketing to children. As the book details, the effort was called the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. It culminated in a public report offering voluntary actions companies could take to regulate their own kid-focused food marketing. Subsequently, the US Congress directed federal agencies to come up with better voluntary nutrition standards for food marketing to children. Deemed the Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Kids (IWG), it seemed promising, especially because First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign kicked off around the same time. Yet, you would be wrong to assume that Michelle Obama or the Obama Administration came out in favor of IWG’s proposed guidelines on food marketing to children. Siegel describes how the White House was lobbied heavily to keep quiet. And they did just that.

Sure, the Obamas failed on IWG, but the Trump Administration was like, hold my beer. Earlier this year, after Kid Food was already published, the Administration issued proposed changes that would continue to chip away at the science-based nutrition standards the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act brought to school meals.  In case you missed it, under the new rule schools could serve potatoes to fulfill the breakfast program’s fruit requirement. That is, breakfast could be served not with a fruit but with a starchy vegetable like a potato in order for the school to get their meal reimbursement from the federal government. Do you feel like you’ve entered some alternate universe? I do.

In addition, the proposed rule would also solidify standards allowing schools to serve more potatoes or certain types of pastas made from vegetables (such as potatoes) to meet the lunch’s vegetable requirement. It’s painfully obvious who this Administration is prioritizing with these changes. Hint: it’s not our children.

4. Siegel gives us practical ways to make change—and a simple mantra

You’re angry, I get it. But as I said earlier, don’t fret. In Chapter 9, “Four Wishes,” Siegel lays out a variety of pragmatic policy solutions to the food marketing mess in and outside of schools. Not only that, she includes some options for parents to get involved and push for change in their own schools and districts. These suggestions are particularly appealing if you’re like me, too impatient to wait for bigger change that can only be accomplished by our federal lawmakers and president (although don’t worry, UCS is working hard here in Washington).

Finally, I love the last two sentences of the book: “We can all do better by our children. We can because we must.” It’s this same, simple mantra we should be following on climate change, or any other issue that impacts kids, as my colleagues here at UCS point out in their new report.

American parents are doing the best they can with the knowledge, time and sanity they have—believe me, we’re trying. But if the examples in this book are any indication, along with the Trump Administration’s recent school lunch changes, policymakers and food companies can do a lot better by our children. And they must. And no, this doesn’t mean we can’t have a pizza party.