“Now, I want to be clear about what I’m asking here,” Mrs. Obama said at the event, which was attended by dozens of representatives from the food and media industries, advocacy and parent groups, government agencies and research institutions. “I am not asking anyone to take the fun out of childhood. As we all know, treats are one of the best parts of being a kid. Instead, the goal here is to empower parents instead of undermining them as they try to make healthier choices for their families. And we need you to lead the way in creating demand for healthy foods so that kids actually start ‘pestering’ us for those foods in the grocery store. And then parents actually start buying them, and then companies have incentives to make and sell even more of those foods.”
Mrs. Obama cited research showing 86 percent of food advertisements airing on television are for foods containing high amounts of sugar, fat and salt. By contrast, children only are exposed to about one ad a week for healthy products such as water, fruits or vegetables, she said.
“From the time our kids are still in diapers, we as parents are already fighting an uphill battle to get them interested in the foods that will actually nourish them and help them grow,” Mrs. Obama said.
The conversation on food marketing to children comes at a time when a “cultural shift” is taking place in the United States, Mrs. Obama said. She referenced several examples of change, including chain restaurants that are serving kale salads and children’s menus at restaurants that now include broccoli and whole wheat pasta. Schools also are beginning to offer healthier food options, she said.
“We’re actually starting to move the needle on this issue,” she said. “Between 2008 and 2011, obesity rates among low-income preschoolers dropped in 19 states and territories across the country. And childhood obesity rates are falling in cities like New York and Philadelphia, and in states like California and Mississippi.”
But while she said there has been progress, Mrs. Obama noted there is still much work to do.
“We have made meaningful changes in a number of areas by getting healthier food into our schools and communities, but at the end of the day, if we truly want to solve this problem, we also need to get our kids to actually want to eat these healthier options,” she said. Specifically, she cited a need for foods with real nutritional value, such as foods fortified with real fruits and vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy.
At the summit, Mrs. Obama lauded several companies for taking steps down the right track, including Pinnacle Foods Group for using characters from the Nickelodeon children’s show “iCarly” in promotions encouraging children to eat Birds Eye vegetables. She said companies can promote and sell healthy foods to children and make a profit at the same time.
“The fact is that marketing nutritious foods to our kids isn’t just good for our kids’ health — it can also be good for companies’ bottom lines,” Mrs. Obama said.
In addition to food companies, Mrs. Obama also made a plea to media companies to do their part in responsibly marketing food to children. She urged companies to limit the use of licensed characters to market unhealthy foods to children, but also asked them to use licensed characters to promote healthy foods. Doing so will help build trust with parents, she said, adding that trust is “valuable” and “good for your businesses.”
Mrs. Obama said healthier eating is not just some passing trend or fad, and is not likely to go away once she is no longer first lady.
“Healthier eating is starting to become the new norm for our kids,” she said. “This is what they’re getting used to, and for many, this is all they’ll ever know. And as their palates and their habits adjust, that could have a serious effect on their taste and preferences not just as children, but for the rest of their lives. It could even affect what they ultimately buy and serve their own children in the future.”