Who Hates Online Activism?

There is more to say about Brian Wansink, Ph.D., the chief inventor and proponent of Smarter Lunchrooms, which took over the presentation aspect of lunch in about 30,000 American public schools. Independent columnist Bettina Elias Siegel became very interested in examining Wansink’s work.

Siegel put a lot of thought and experience into zeroing in on a very specific aspect of his research, and his regressive attitudes about ordinary people who are picky about what kinds of junk they eat. Rather than encourage the curious and the concerned to educate themselves with the marvelous resources of the Internet, he grouched, “Reading about food ingredients on the Web. It’s one of the worst things you can do if you want the facts…”

Really? Could it be that parents, educators, policymakers, and other interested parties who look for nutrition information at the websites of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation or the Mayo Clinic are misguided fools? In fact, Wansink’s own multitudinous studies are published via the Web. As a researcher and writer, how does it make any sense for him to diss the very medium that brings his work to the world’s attention?

It’s all about controlling the narrative

Honestly now, who is it that really hates the Internet? Actually, that attitude belongs more appropriately to Big Junk Food, as Siegel points out. Online sources are where citizens get all the inside information about things like how the world was lied to for years about the damage done by sugar, and the sleazy practices of fast-food merchants.

Online is the place where outraged citizens can band together to create change. Let’s go to Siegel’s endorsement:

To the great consternation of the processed food industry, it is becoming ever more apparent that the Internet and social media are extremely powerful tools for advancing various food-related causes, from aiding grassroots activism, to spreading viral videos promoting sustainable food practices or decrying children’s junk food advertising, to making possible online petitions like the one I started in 2012, which garnered a quarter of a million signatures and within nine days led the USDA to change one of its school food policies.

Anyone with a food-related sense of mission would do well to take cyber-activism lessons from Siegel.

The wellsprings of power

But how did one man, Dr. Brian Wansink, gain so much control over what goes on in public school cafeterias? Again, Siegel has a viable theory. It was mainly due to fortuitous timing. In 2010 The New York Times published an opinion piece written by Dr. Wansink, David R. Just, and Joe McKendry which, Siegel says…

[…] happened to appear in the Times just three months before President Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a new law that would greatly improve the nutritional standards for school meals around the country…

A low-cost way to boost student acceptance of healthy food couldn’t have come at a better time, and just one month after the Times piece appeared, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it was giving Wansink and his team $1 million to “lead, coordinate and disseminate” more of this highly promising cafeteria design research.

Wow! Talk about a lucky break! Meanwhile, the stars were aligning to provide Dr. Wansink et al with even more good fortune a few years later. In 2014, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the kitchens of at least 90% of American public schools were successfully meeting the new nutrition standards. An additional $5.5 million grant would help them keep on doing this. The USDA, which had helped to fund the development of Wansink’s program, would continue its financial support:

The grants focus on implementation of Smarter Lunchrooms strategies, a broad toolkit of easy-to-implement, evidence-based practices designed to increase consumption of healthier foods and decrease plate waste…

The Smarter Lunchrooms movement applies practical, research-based principles and strategies that have proven effective at creating an environment that encourages kids to make healthy choices…

These funds may be used to assist the state agency in providing training and technical assistance to school staff in creating Smarter Lunchrooms.

Ironically, the justifications that Vilsack gave for sticking with Smarter Lunchrooms included the same dicey claims that multiple critics later disputed.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Moms, “Food Fears” and the Power of the Internet,” TheLunchTray.com, 07/08/14
Source: “BREAKING: Can We Trust the Data Behind ‘Smarter Lunchrooms?’,” TheLunchTray.com, 02/14/17
Source: “USDA Announces Support for Smarter Lunchrooms,” USDA.gov, 03/12/14
Image by U.S. Dept. of Agriculture/Public Domain

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Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
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Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

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