Monday, November 21, 2011

Handling the Holidays

This post was written by guest blogger Brandy King of Knowledge Linking. After spending the last eight years working with research on children and media, Brandy now faces the challenge of raising two young boys in our media-saturated and commercialized world.
Yet another holiday season has arrived with its doorbuster sales, cyber deals, and mile-long wish lists. What does a commercial-free family do when faced with the consumerism and commercialism that rule the season?

The wide variety of answers I received from some like-minded parents demonstrates just how many different ways there are to handle all the holiday hoopla. How does your family respond to these situations? Tell us in the comments!
Do you say anything specific to gift-givers about your preference for commercial-free gifts?
  • “Instead, we’ve expressed a preference for good quality toys that have an educational component, that encourage free, imaginative play and that aren't too noisy. Since both our moms were teachers, they appreciate this line of thinking!”
  • “No, I’m afraid to sound ungrateful by limiting people’s generosity.”
  • “The conversation about WHY we feel this way can get involved, especially in a large Italian family where everyone has an opinion. Sometimes it's easier to just let it slide and hide the toys at my mom’s house until I can figure out what to do with them.”
If your kids receive commercialized gifts, do you keep them?
  • “We have donated or consigned several items we thought were not for us.”
  • “It depends on the gift. I let the kids wear pajamas with characters on them, but do not allow characters on any other clothes since I don’t want my children to walk around like an advertisement.”
  • “We’ve given some items away, but there are some exceptions, of course. My sister made a pillow case for my daughter with Kermit fabric. We kept it and refer to it as "Auntie’s frog pillow." I think the difference with this gift versus others lies with intention and marketing (or, at least, that's what my gut tells me). The pillow case wasn't created to pad the coffers of a company, it was lovingly sewn by my daughter's aunt. “
What do you do if your children ask for an item you don’t particularly want them to have (commercial or not)?
  • “When my 5 year old daughter asked for a Hannah Montana backpack, I talked to her about what she liked about it. We figured out that she liked the “rock-star vibe” and found a neat black backpack with a microphone and guitar on it. Now she loves that she has something unique!”
  • “When my daughter saw dolls she liked in a catalog, I asked her why she liked them (rather than telling her that she shouldn't like them) and she told me it was because they all had pets. I was able to use this to move the conversation to pets in general, and specifically animal toys. It was both a conversation about marketing (at a two-year-old's level) as well as redirection to something more appropriate in my book.”
  • “With my fourth grader, I’m apt to ask questions and consider his answers. “Why do you want this product? How did you learn about it? What makes it appealing to you? Do you think it would still be fun in a month? A season? A year? How much money is reasonable to spend on something you’re not sure you’ll play with six months from now?” Also, I remind him that he is old enough to save up his own money to purchase items I may not be inclined to get him.”
As you can see in these answers, there are a lot of different strategies parents use to combat commercialism, and they draw the line differently depending on the situation. What's your advice for making it through the holidays as a commercial-free family? Weigh in below!
Read more!

Friday, November 18, 2011

School food politics: What’s missing from the pizza-as-vegetable reporting

Over the last couple of days, news outlets have been having a field day with a proposal from Congress that pizza sauce be considered a vegetable to qualify for the National School Lunch program. Headlines like this one were typical: “Is Pizza Sauce a Vegetable? Congress says Yes.” (The blogs were a tad more childish; for example LA Weekly: Congress to USDA: Pizza is So a Vegetable, Nah Nah Nah Nah Nah Nah.)

Most reporters, pressed for time and resources, tend to simplify complex stories and this was no exception. In one camp, so the stories went, are nutrition advocates who want healthier school meals, while Republicans are saying the feds shouldn’t be making such decisions. Here is one example of this framing of the story:
Conservatives in Congress say the federal government shouldn’t be telling children what to eat. They say requirements proposed by the President went too far, costing budget strapped schools too much. Local schools are caught in the middle.
Meanwhile, a few other reports did a better job of explaining the massive industry lobbying at play. (See, for example, Mother Jones’ Tom Philpott and Ed Bruske aka The Slow Cook, a hero in school food reporting.)

And while it was easy to compare this current craziness to the Reagan-era infamous “ketchup-is-a-vegetable” school lunch proposal (which did not pass), a bit more history, common sense, and political context is needed.

History: As much as the GOP would like to hang this on Obama, the effort to improve the quality of school meals dates back decades. In the mid 1990′s a huge battle was finally won to bring school nutrition in line with federal government’s own dietary advice. Since that time, science evolved and the standards needed updating. We also had the increasing problem of school vending loaded with soft drinks and candy. Then in 2004, (yes, during Bush) Congress authorized USDA to improve nutrition standards for school food. Finally at the request of USDA, the Institute of Medicine released a report in 2009 with very specific recommendations for USDA to follow – based on science.  So this process has been going on long before the current budget crisis and before Obama could get blamed for everything since the dawn of time. 

Common sense: If you stop and think about it, shouldn’t all food assistance programs (i.e., paid for with taxpayer dollars), at the very least, comply with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which is supposed to be based on the latest nutrition science? Recall the feds’ new MyPlate, released to much fanfare earlier this year, which recommends half the meal be comprised of fresh fruits and vegetables, not tater tots and pizza. 

Politics: As I said, a few reports did mention the lobbying by, for example, the American Frozen Food Institute. (Yes, there’s a trade group for frozen pizza, fries, and other school food abominations; and surprise, they are thrilled with this outcome.) But almost everyone missed the industry front group,”The Coalition for Sustainable Meal Programs.” (I could not make that one up.) And once again, we need more context.

This issue isn’t just that the processed food industry is upset with proposed improvements to school meals, it’s how they are flexing their political muscle to get their way. The critical (and most under-reported) part of this story is how Congress has hijacked the USDA regulatory process to do the food industry’s bidding.

Congress is putting language to undercut the USDA rules into its agriculture appropriations bill, a sneaky move used when you want something to pass outside of the usual legislative (and in this case regulatory) process.

You know things are bad politically when even USDA (seeming a tad shell-shocked) defended its proposed rules, telling the Washington Post that keeping pizza in schools won’t save any money, as the GOP claimed.

Let’s recap: Congress authorized USDA to improve the nutritional quality of school meals seven years ago. USDA commissioned a report from the IOM to help the agency do exactly that, based on the best available science. USDA subsequently proposed regulations, has taken public comment, and should then come out with final regulations. Civics 101 folks: Congress makes the laws and the executive branch carries them out. Agencies such as USDA are the experts, not Congress. That is why the legislature delegates authority to the agency in charge. But here, the food industry didn’t get what it wanted through the normal channels, so it went to Congress, which usurped the entire process. I’d love to see reporters asking: how the hell did that happen?

And let’s not forget this is supposed to be about our nation’s kids. Which raises one more interesting question: Where exactly is Michelle Obama and her Let’s Move campaign now? The First Lady has been a champion for improving school meals but of course she has no real power. The food industry has plenty. And while politicians curry favor with lobbyists, schoolchildren will pay the ultimate price, with their health.
Read more!