USDA's "Dinner Plate" vs. Farm Subsidies: It's Still No Contest

Last Updated Jun 2, 2011 3:07 PM EDT


Each time the USDA updates its visual guides to healthy eating, the various symbols and illustrations are routinely disregarded by most Americans and derided by healthy eating advocates as deeply flawed. This one is different -- and yet it still won't have any impact on American eating habits.

The government's new icon, the dinner plate, is a vast improvement over the last one -- 2005's pyramid -- which USDA secretary Tom Vilsack acknowledged is horribly complicated and absurdly busy:
It was a pretty complex symbol.....and it was hard for people to remember...It didn't resonate with me.
Instead of a torrid jumble of color-coded, serving-based food images, we now have a plate divided into simple, though slightly unequal, quadrants. And, in a big departure for the USDA, vegetables get top billing, something that delighted the United Fresh Produce Association's Tom Stenzel, who was present at today's press conference. Vegetables are followed by grains, half of which are supposed to be whole grain, although it doesn't say that on the plate. Then it's fruits and protein in equal amounts and a side serving of dairy.

Although simple and easy to grasp, the dinner plate concept isn't exactly groundbreaking. On her blog, NYU nutrition guru Marion Nestle points to four other plate icons currently in use, including ones from the American Diabetes Association and the American Institute for Cancer Research.

Healthy eating advocates have found very little in the actual icon to criticize. The problem comes when you consider the political back story.

The economic force behind poor diets: the U.S. government!
Both Regina Benjamin, the Surgeon General, and Michele Obama, who also showed up for the icon unveiling, argued that it shouldn't be difficult to eat healthy or to find fresh fruits and vegetables to fill your USDA-approved plate. But one big reason a cup of Froot Loops is cheaper than a cup of fruit is the USDA's farm subsidy program, which steers a mere 1% of its financial incentives to farmers growing the all-important fruit and vegetable crops. Most go to growers of the corn and soybeans that show up in processed foods and in animal feed.

Nutritionist and blogger Andy Bellati sums up the problem:
Unless the government plans on matching crop subsidies to the recommendations laid out on My Plate (i.e.: subsidize fruits and vegetables, rather than wheat corn and soy to make nutritionally inferior byproducts), I don't see how My Plate is supposed to help anyone develop better eating habits. I don't believe Americans are lacking knowledge or awareness that fruits and vegetables are healthy; the problem is that fruits and vegetables compete with artificially priced junk food in the marketplace.
And compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars spent marketing sugary drinks, breakfast cereal and other non fruit and vegetable based products, things like broccoli, spinach and raspberries are essentially invisible, appearing only when you step right in front of them at the grocery store, that is if you live near a store that stocks them.

Of course, this wildly unequal marketing landscape isn't the USDA's fault. But there are things the agency could be doing to address it, such as creating something like the so-called "checkoff" programs for fruit and vegetable producers. These successful USDA-run programs for meat and dairy producers are the reason we know milk does a body good and that pork is the other white meat. But no such promotions exist for apples and avocados.

Add in the fact that many vegetables aren't all that convenient and require some cooking, and you have a recipe for ensuring that the new dinner plate is ignored, and that actual diets will still look more like this:


Image from choosemyplate.gov, and courtesy of Yoni Freedhoff
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