Friday, January 27, 2012

The Power of Parents in "Changing the Way We Eat"

Last Saturday (01.21.12) was the 2nd TEDxManhattan conference: Changing the Way We Eat and I was honored to be in the audience. I learned so much, met many amazing people and, as cliche as it sounds, I was truly inspired. My goal in attending was to try to get a handle on how parents and family dinner can fit into the bigger conversation about changing the food system. It's not too far a stretch, really. Laurie David, noted environmental activist and author of The Family Dinner book was the host again this year. She argued eloquently at last year's event that family dinner can indeed be an important step in the right direction for systemic change. I feel like parents are an untapped resource in the battle for better eating, better nutrition and a better food system.

The TedxManhattan talks were live streamed that day and there were over 4,000 viewing parties all over the world. Twitter followers can find many great quotes from the day under the #TEDxMan hashtag (Here's one compilation from Buckybox on Storify.) The actual talks are set to be posted online within a month or so. In the meantime, over the next few posts, I'm going to share my thoughts and big "take-away" messages.

Big Take-away #1: The Consumer
Many speakers talked about how the consumer could or would lead the way in changing the food system. By demanding high quality food, by being more knowledgeable about where food comes from and by understanding the true costs of food, consumer demand could help "move the market" so that healthier foods would be more available. I totally agree. (Statistics on the growing market for organics alone are here.) Yet, no one came out and talked about who the most powerful consumers in this game are: the parents.

Let's make it clear about who our consumer audience is for the good food movement and reach out accordingly. Families, by and large, spend more money at the grocery store than any other segment and are a huge market. Parents (and kids) are the targets for multi-billion dollar advertising campaigns, mainly pushing overprocessed, unhealthy foods. There is a huge tidal-wave of misinformation that we have to combat. There are many factors in the childhood obesity epidemic, but the proliferation of fast-food, kid-food, and sugary soda and drinks aimed at kids and teens are a huge part of the problem. Parents must be engaged and enlightened on their role in demanding better food choices. Parents should not be the "elephant in the room," but instead empowered to be the first line of defense.

Two people at the conference did talk about parents directly, although one was just on video: Urvashi Rangan from the Consumer Union and Jamie Oliver in his Ted Big Wish Award talk (February 2011).

Urvashi Rangan, a parent herself, made a persuasive and impassioned case for how food labels need to be better regulated. Consumers do read labels and generally want to purchase healthier food, but they are often confused by labels, and rightly so (from Fooducate). As Rangan presented, the term "natural" means nothing, but some parents think it does and even report thinking "natural" is better than "organic." Organic is not a perfect label, she reasoned, but hundreds of pages of federal standards are behind it. We need more clarity.

Update: Urvashi's Rangan's TedxTalk added 2.13.12

So, parents do care, but are easily tricked. (Not to suggest that parents are stupid or uneducated, it's that millions of dollars goes into the "science" of misinformation.)  In my experience, even well-educated parents can fall for the "Pop-Tart" trap. Almost every parent knows that pop-tarts are a "treat" at best. But it's easy to think "Hey the label says 'Made with Real Fruit,' how bad can it be?" Or maybe a parent might think, "Oh, these have been improved and are healthier now." Labels should be helping consumers, not setting them up for a bad-food trap.

I fell in love with Jamie Oliver all over again seeing his talk on the big screen of the TEDx stage, even though I've seen it before. Singing to the choir with me obviously, but it is a pity and a shame that we can't get home-cooking more in favor. Family meals can be at the core of widespread change. "Mums and dads," as Jamies would say, have got to realize they they are part of this change movement. He actually has a movement afoot. If you haven't heard about it, sign up here.

I'll leave you with Jamie's impassioned speech. What do you think about the power of parents in the good food fight?

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