Corporate Potluck

Dietitians and their company sponsors make strange buffet fellows

Jacob Wheeler

For three days ear­ly this fall, the Penn­syl­va­nia Con­ven­tion Cen­ter was home to cor­po­rate enti­ties such as Pep­si­Co, Hershey’s, Taco Bell, Crisco and McDonald’s. They weren’t there to count calo­ries but to rub bel­lies with mem­bers of the Amer­i­can Dietet­ic Asso­ci­a­tion, who had gath­ered in Philadel­phia for the annu­al Food & Nutri­tion Con­fer­ence & Expo.

Pep­si­Co cares about you. The company’s Health and Well­ness” web­site pic­tures a smil­ing fam­i­ly in ten­nis shoes and work­out clothes enjoy­ing a brisk walk. All are con­sum­ing Pep­si prod­ucts. Dad is drink­ing a can of Pep­si. Grand­ma is tot­ing a bag of Lay’s pota­to chips. Aside from the ques­tion­able work­out, we’re left to won­der: When did Pep­si become an advo­cate for health?

Mar­sha Holm­berg, a food edi­tor at the Ore­gon­ian who flew in from Port­land, says too many Amer­i­cans have become culi­nary illit­er­ates, con­vinced by tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials that processed food is nutri­tious. Nobody thinks they have the time to cook,” Holm­berg says. They think it’s com­pli­cat­ed. In real­i­ty, it takes as much time to make from a mix as it does to make from scratch. It’s an illu­sion that food prepa­ra­tion takes time.”

At the convention’s book­store, neat rows of dietit­ian guide­books – with cov­ers of col­or­ful fruit and veg­eta­bles, along­side the occa­sion­al whole grain cere­al or wheat stalk – lined the booths. The mes­sage was healthy food, which pro­fes­sion­als agree is the back­bone of a sound diet.

Yet not every­one was eat­ing from the same menu.

Reg­is­tered dietit­ian Rege­na Gerth was pro­mot­ing Taco Bell’s new Fres­co Style” line – which sub­sti­tutes cheese with fresh Fies­ta Sal­sa.” Patrons will con­tin­ue to go to fast-food restau­rants,” she says, so the least we can do is offer healthy options – any­thing that can be incor­po­rat­ed into a diet.” She failed to men­tion that gut-bust­ing Tex-Mex food filled with meat and beans is still the dri­ve-thru favorite.

At the Unilever stand, the com­pa­ny mar­ket­ed its Hellmann’s may­on­naise, demon­strat­ing how to turn it into a meal in 10 min­utes. Near­by, McDonald’s fried up pub­lic rela­tions (mil­lions served)– try­ing to recov­er from the heart­burn wrought by Super Size Me, the 2004 doc­u­men­tary about the per­ils of eat­ing at Mick­ey D’s.

Asked if it was iron­ic that McDonald’s was at the Food & Nutri­tion Con­fer­ence & Expo, reg­is­tered dietit­ian Julia Braun said not at all. We’re not try­ing to be a health restau­rant, but we still want to offer healthy options,” she said, admit­ting that this was an image campaign.

Franken­food pur­vey­or Mon­san­to, was also in atten­dance, the company’s pub­lic rela­tions team extolling the virtues of tech­ni­cal engi­neer­ing on a mas­sive scale. Would it not be safer and more envi­ron­men­tal­ly sound for con­sumers to rely on local food sources, espe­cial­ly giv­en the E.coli fall­out from mass-pro­duced foods such as spinach and beef? (Not to men­tion the pol­lu­tion emit­ted by trans­port­ing pro­duce across a continent?)

The mar­ket can’t be full of good, afford­able foods with­out tech­ni­cal engi­neer­ing,” said Karen Mar­shall, Monsanto’s senior direc­tor of pub­lic affairs. Pro­po­nents of small organ­ics over­look that we need big farms, as well. I also wouldn’t say that small­er is safer, because large means accountability.” 

By and large, the Chica­go-based Amer­i­can Dietet­ic Asso­ci­a­tion (ADA) and a major­i­ty of its 67,000 mem­bers – what the asso­ci­a­tion refers to as the nation’s food and nutri­tion experts” – have failed to embrace the local food move­ment, much less sound the alarm over our culture’s unsus­tain­able reliance on mass-pro­duced food: the pol­lu­tion caused by truck­ing corn, fruit and meat across mul­ti­ple state lines, and ship­ping it across the world; the envi­ron­men­tal destruc­tion wrought by farm­ers pres­sured into a mono­cul­ture agri­cul­ture sys­tem; and the inher­ent health risk of eat­ing a bunch of spinach from an unknown source.

The valu­able local food lessons of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilem­ma seem not to have reg­is­tered at the ADA – or, at least, not enough to have sup­plant­ed its need to court cor­po­rate spon­sors for its annu­al conference.

One of those spon­sors, the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal giant Glax­o­SmithK­line (GSK), recent­ly released Alli, the first over-the-counter diet pill to gain approval from the Food & Drug Admin­is­tra­tion and pro­mot­ed at the Food & Nutri­tion Con­fer­ence & Expo. GSK launched a Meet Alli” tour last year in malls nation­wide, where dieti­tians offered con­sul­ta­tion and free Alli pills for six months to weight-con­scious shoppers.

In its pro­mo­tion­al mate­r­i­al, the cor­po­ra­tion fea­tures three dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters: Com­mit­ted Con­nie who is white, Com­mit­ted Car­men who is Lati­na and Com­mit­ted Cas­san­dra who is African Amer­i­can. At a media pre­sen­ta­tion in Philadel­phia, a GSK spokesper­son was care­ful to add that, when it comes to the African-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty, Alli’s mar­ket­ing focus­es on health” rather than weight.” She explained, they find size a lit­tle more attrac­tive.” Yet, at the same pre­sen­ta­tion, the GSK spokesper­son stressed that Alli only works if a per­son sticks to a low-calo­rie, healthy diet.

Why, then, was a diet pill pro­mot­ed at the ADA’s annu­al keynote event when the most impor­tant fac­tor in main­tain­ing a healthy lifestyle is to eat right (the ADA’s web­site, after all, is www​.eatright​.org)? And how did the nation’s food and nutri­tion experts” stray from pro­mot­ing the fruits, veg­eta­bles and whole grains fea­tured on the cov­ers of their books? Could it be relat­ed to the more than $10,000 that GSK con­tributed to ADA as a cor­po­rate spon­sor with­in the last year? ADA’s oth­er cor­po­rate spon­sors include Unilever, Nation­al Dairy Coun­cil, Pep­si­Co, Kellogg’s, Gen­er­al Mills, Mars Inc. and Abbott Nutri­tion. Accord­ing to ADA Pres­i­dent Con­nie Diek­man, the ADA close­ly eval­u­ates any poten­tial col­lab­o­ra­tion or part­ner­ship to ensure it direct­ly sup­ports ADA’s mis­sion and strate­gic direc­tion, pro­tects ADA’s name and safe­guards the integri­ty and cred­i­bil­i­ty of ADA and our members.”

Hunger and Envi­ron­men­tal Nutri­tion (HEN), a group of dieti­tians who are con­cerned about pub­lic health with­in the ADA that has more than 900 mem­bers, focus­es on nutri­tious foods and clean water in the con­text of a secure and sus­tain­able envi­ron­ment. One evening dur­ing the con­fer­ence, HEN held a Food and Film Feast­i­val” in Philadelphia’s his­toric Read­ing Ter­mi­nal Mar­ket where it served local­ly grown, sea­son­al foods, as well as micro-brewed beer, while show­ing guests films about food and the strug­gles today’s farm­ers face to stay in business.

Helen Costel­lo, the past chair of HEN, said she felt stuck between a rock and a hard place in the debate over local and organ­ic foods. This is an issue of food safe­ty, when 22 mil­lion pounds of beef are recalled as a symp­tom of a con­sol­i­dat­ed food indus­try. One affect­ed ani­mal ruins the whole lot. But it’s com­pli­cat­ed because our cul­ture wants cheap food. 

More ADA mem­bers would like more local food,” she said, but the orga­ni­za­tion takes a con­ser­v­a­tive view over­all, adopt­ing the mind­set that organ­ics can’t feed the world.”

HEN chair and exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Sus­tain­able Farm­ing Asso­ci­a­tion of Min­neso­ta, Mary Jo For­bord said that con­vinc­ing the ADA to pro­mote local food sys­tems over cor­po­rate agribusi­ness is more of a marathon than a sprint. For­bord, a fifth-gen­er­a­tion Min­neso­ta farmer, said that cur­rent­ly, There’s no pub­lic dis­course. Con­sumers and cit­i­zens ought to write the Farm Bill, because we all pay for the sys­tem we have in place. It deter­mines what we will eat, how our land­scapes will be used, and who will reap the ben­e­fits. Agri­cul­tur­al pol­i­cy needs to line up with food pol­i­cy, with goal of health in the broad sense – for peo­ple, com­mu­ni­ties and ecosystems.”

For the time being, though, HEN will take baby steps like hold­ing local-food fes­ti­vals in lieu of launch­ing an all-out, food-throw­ing mutiny against the ADA. Even­tu­al­ly, HEN hopes, ag-biotech, big phar­ma and fast-food rep­re­sen­ta­tives dressed in dieti­tians’ cloth­ing will have no place at the table.

Jacob Wheel­er is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times.
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