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The Seeds of Change: Food, Framing and the First Lady

October 12, 2010

Ok, here’s one. Michelle Obama walks into the NRA.  No, it’s not a joke—for starters, it’s not that NRA.  Late September, the First Lady addressed the National Restaurant Association—but seeing how they’re made up of McDonalds and Co, and Mrs. Obama is on a campaign to save kids from junk food—well, the other NRA might have been an easier crowd.

But into this lions’ den Obama goes, announcing that on average, Americans families eat one out of three meals in a restaurant, and “the meals they [kids] eat at restaurants have twice as many calories as the ones they eat at home.”  Based on these statistics, it seems pretty safe to say that since kids get such a huge percentage of their daily calories in restaurants, before their eating habits can truly improve, restaurant culture is going to have to drastically change.  But, the NRA, it’s making bank and plodding along just fine.

So how does Mrs. Obama suggest change to a roomful of people who probably aren’t interested in hearing it?

She gives them a list of easy and predictable suggestions. In fact, most of Mrs. Obama’s suggestions are almost too predictable. This sets up the expectation that all of her advice will toe the same boring and business-friendly line, when really it doesn’t.

Just how predictable are her suggestions? Well, her big one is that restaurants reformat their menus “in pragmatic and incremental ways to create healthier versions of the foods that we all love.”  And what might these “pragmatic and incremental” ways be?  Things like substituting 1% or skim milk for whole.  Whole wheat instead of white pasta, natch.  Healthier side dishes? Marginally smaller portions? Check. And my personal favorite? Taking out some, just some, of the butter and cream…certainly “not enough to sacrifice flavor…but just enough.” Hearing these suggestions, I’m wondering if I’m the only one having flashbacks to seeing corny “reach for an apple instead of the chips because apples are delicious and nutritious” PSAs while watching Power Rangers as a (somewhat fat and ergo relatively unfazed) child.

But, by positioning herself throughout her speech as sympathetic to the aims of the restaurant industry and by echoing such passé suggestions, Obama is able to work up to a suggestion of the deep-cultural-change type.

Immediately after giving this list (remember, we’re still thinking “pragmatic and incremental”), Obama tells the restaurateurs that their “role in helping childhood obesity isn’t limited to what you put on your menus or how you label them for parents.” She urges them to consider the effect their advertising has on eating habits, pointing out that:

our kids don’t learn about the latest fast-food creations on their own. They hear about them on TV, advertisements, in the Internet, video games, and many other places. And as any parent knows, this marketing is highly effective.

She encourages the industry to use their marketing savvy in the aims of nutrition:

if there’s anyone who can sell healthy food to our kids, it’s all of you, because you know what gets their attention.  You know what makes a lasting impression…So I’m here today to ask you to use that knowledge and that power to our kids’ advantage. I’m asking you to actively promote healthy foods and healthy habits to our kids.

And while I’m pretty sure I never heard about a new Value Menu item from a video game, her point is clear enough—token healthy items aren’t going to cut it when the entire food culture at large encourages unhealthy overconsumption, and the restaurant industry needs to change the way it presents healthy food before any lasting changes can take place in American food culture.

Admittedly, this is a small point in a speech that mostly seems like another rewrite of the “eat healthy” status quo, but it’s a seed nonetheless.  It’s a seed set up to be “pragmatic and incremental,” but it is neither. And it’s a seed that is rendered all the more innocent precisely because of its position buried amidst such familiar suggestions. Hopefully it’s not buried too deep to grow.

If you want to know more

  • When Obama’s defines her suggestions as “pragmatic and incremental” and fills the list with status quo suggestions, she sets up a frame wherein she cues the audience to interpret all her reforms as business-friendly and innocuous, even when one clearly isn’t.  For more on framing as rhetorical strategy, there’s Entman’s “Framing: Toward Clarification of a Fractured Paradigm;” Jamieson and Waldman’s “The Press Effect” and several of Lakoff’s works.
  • The official White House transcript of Obama’s remarks can be found here.
  • An image of Obama giving the address can be found here.

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