Panel on Consumer Attitudes Toward Food Focuses on Changing Behavior, Starting with Students

10/10/2011 - At the 34th annual National Food Policy Conference in Washington in October, Pew Health Group managing director Shelley Hearne discussed key issues facing consumers and the food industry. The event was sponsored by the Consumer Federation of America with the Food Institute Report.

“What we hear consumers asking is what is in our food, how is our food produced, and what are our children eating?” Hearne said.

She suggested that the opportunity for policy change is ripe in schools; breakfasts and lunches served provide many children more than half of their daily calories.

The nutrition standards for school meals have not been updated in more than 15 years.

At the beginning of 2011 the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a proposal for updated school meal nutrition guidelines based on recommendations made by the Institute of Medicine in 2009. The proposal would require schools to serve more whole grains and more fruits and vegetables, and meals with fewer calories and less sodium.

A survey commissioned by The Pew Health Group and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that 78 percent of voters think that schools should be required to meet higher nutrition standards for all foods they serve or sell to students.

“Now is the time to set those science-based standards so that all kids have access to healthy foods in their schools,” Hearne said.

Though various issues related to food were discussed, Hearne stressed that policy makers and industry need to work together to make nutritious food more readily available and to create situations in which healthy choices are easier to make. This type of collaboration will benefit parents and children.  She noted that this type of industry-consumer and health group collaboration has demonstrated success with the enactment of the landmark FDA Food Safety Modernization Act in January.

The conversation was moderated by Mary Christ-Erwin, executive vice president of Porter Novelli, and included the executive director of the NPD Group Inc., Joseph Derochowski , and Shahram Heshmat, associate professor of behavioral economics at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Conference attendees, about 400, represented a diverse range of interests including the food and manufacturing industry, policymakers, nonprofits and academia.  The audience at the panel had questions largely related to educating children on how to make healthy choices.

For instance, one audience member asked, “Are there any programs that are trying to get home economics back into the school system so core abilities like boiling an egg or cooking a piece of chicken are instilled into our children?”

Heshmat pointed to the work being done at the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, where redesigning a school cafeteria is meant to alter students’ behaviors. Some of the changes include placing fruits and vegetables more prominently than less healthy options and providing an ample selection of produce to empower students through choice. Many of these studies have shown that kids do eat the healthier foods.

“The lessons learned from past public health successes have been to start with children in terms of access and behavioral work,” Hearne said. “We’ve got some great and important opportunities not just with USDA standards, but also with competitive food standards, to ensure access to healthy, nutritious foods in schools, setting a pattern for a healthier, safer future.”

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