grocery store vegetablesI’ve been quietly watching something take shape in the blogging world, as respected kid-and-food writers (many of whom are friends of mine) have been debating the merits of the new FNV campaign – essentially, a marketing machine that’s aimed at promoting fruits and veggies. The idea behind the whole thing is that if kids can be swayed into eating junk foods and highly processed items by savvy marketing, then the reverse should hold true: We should be able to increase fruit and vegetable consumption among our children if we advertise properly. (Side note: FNV apparently doesn’t SPECIFICALLY target kids, but I can’t believe that a star-studded ad campaign to make produce cool is primarily targeted to Mom and Dad.)

One of my favorite people in blogging, Bettina Siegel of The Lunch Tray, has come out in favor of FNV. One of my other most respected voices on the topic of kids and food, Casey Hinds of US Healthy Kids, has rejected it. And what do I think? Well, I’ve largely stayed out of the thing, because quite honestly, I wasn’t sure what to think.

Here’s the thing: I just don’t think it’s going to make much difference.

Oh, I’ll probably be proven wrong. Maybe it’ll be a smashing success and droves of kids nationwide will start clamoring for carrots instead of Cheetos, and if that happens, I’ll be psyched. But my deep-down sneaking suspicion is that the reason kids aren’t eating as many fruits and vegetables as they ought to has nothing to do with marketing.

Assuming that manipulating kids’ desires through clever advertising is the crux of long-term habit change seems like a smart line of thinking, doesn’t it? After all, we know marketers rely on the nag factor. We know they use every trick in the book to make kids beg their parents for the cartoon-branded, celebrity-endorsed snacks and cereals, so that worn-down parents will give in and buy the objects of the kids’ desires. Given that knowledge, of course it seems like you could just turn the tables to get the kids nagging their parents for fruits and veggies, right?

It SEEMS that way. But that doesn’t quite give enough heft, in my opinion, to a whole host of other factors, factors that I staunchly believe are really at the core of why kids don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables, and factors that I believe are at the core of why kids eat too many processed foods.

  1. Kids have developed a taste for processed foods.
    The line of thinking behind FNV goes something like this: market the healthy foods to the kids, and they’ll eat them. In eating them, they’ll develop a taste for them. What’s missing is the fact that if children have been raised on a heavily processed-food diet, they’ll need to make room for the fruits and veggies. They’ll need to cut out some of the junk.While some kids may willingly do that, as long as they’re still being given plenty of access to the junk foods (and receiving marketing messages encouraging their consumption – remember, it’s not like processed food companies are going to STOP marketing because of FNV), their palates will not easily acclimate to fresh foods. The carrots will have to share space with the Cheetos, and once a kid has decided that the Cheetos are preferable, no amount of cute marketing will help change their taste buds and readily shove the snacks aside for more fresh vegetables.
  2. Kids aren’t making the buying decisions.
    In general, I’m no fan of the old argument that it’s okay to manipulate kids through marketing because their parents make the decisions – for one thing, I think it lacks nuance. BUT. In this case, I do not believe that marketing has such power over parental choices that it will be able to radically change the diets of most children whose diets need changing. Parents buy what they buy, for any number of reasons: It’s easy; it’s familiar; it’s on sale; they know it’ll reliably get eaten. Parents who are pro-vegetable already don’t need the FNV campaign, and their kids probably don’t need it, either. Parents who aren’t familiar with preparing fresh fruits and vegetables or who believe that their children won’t like them, and the food will go to waste, won’t likely be swayed to undertake a massive dietary overhaul in their households because suddenly carrots are cooler than they were last week.
  3. Marketing does not equal access.
    Let’s be very, very honest with ourselves. A large number of the children who are getting adequate fruits and vegetables in their diets are likely to be more affluent than the kids who are eating the fewest fruits and vegetables. Their families have access to plenty of grocery stores and/or farmer’s markets that stock a wide variety of appealing options. Their families have grocery budgets that can expand to include hearty helpings of produce, even at the risk of wasting a little here and there on taste buds that aren’t cooperating. Their families have the time and resources to learn how to prepare these foods, or to hire someone who can, and they are more likely to have a higher level of education that helps them to make informed choices about nutrition.
    The FNV campaign will be largely wasted on those families; now what about the others? What about the very low-income families who get their food primarily from food pantries and assistance mechanisms? You can market fruits and veggies all you want to those kids, but no matter how desperately they (or their parents) want to eat the good stuff, they’re  not often going to be presented with bunches of kale or even totes of apples.
    And if we step up the ladder to the family that clips coupons and manages to make ends meet – if barely – then we’re likely to find people who are doing their best with limited resources, who have to rely on sale items and shelf-stable options they can buy at reduced rates, who need to stretch dollars to fill stomachs and can only get so many canned or frozen fruits and vegetables per week without crossing more-filling proteins and grains off the grocery list. Are we going to make the carrots and broccoli cheaper than the 99-cent boxes of mac and cheese? Is FNV going to not just make kids from these families want healthier foods more often, but also make it more possible for them to eat them? All of this, by the way, is to say nothing of the food deserts where families can’t find much in the way of healthy produce.
  4.  Marketing does not equal education.
    When it comes right down to that moment of choice – in the grocery store aisle or at the refrigerator when it’s time to make dinner – what I think genuinely holds many people back, even people who have the means to buy lots of fresh produce and whose kids don’t gag at the sight of broccoli, is a lack of awareness about how important our daily food choices actually are. I know plenty of smart, well-off people who really believe that fruit “snacks” are almost as good as a piece of fruit, or that the health claims on a box of Nutri-Grain bars absolve them from having to serve apple slices, or that some raw carrots at lunchtime constitute enough vegetables for a growing child’s daily intake.
    I don’t think these people are in any way stupid or knowingly making less-healthy choices; I just think there isn’t enough concentrated effort being put towards making sure that parents have the right information and are encouraged to act on it. Not even pediatricians often have the latest nutritional information; so how can we expect every parent out there to have it, and then to act on it? FNV may up the “cool factor” of produce, but it can’t change the minds of parents who think they’re already doing the “good enough” job as far as feeding their families, because a lifetime of false nutritional claims by marketing firms for the food industry has convinced them that the packaged options are healthy.

Look, I don’t want to be a Negative Nancy, but I think our national problems with healthy eating come from places that are far too varied and complex to be solved by an image makeover. Until we find effective, widespread and scalable solutions to all of these issues (and all the ones I’m not even listing here), we are not likely to see sustainable long-term behavior changes in the majority of our population. And without long-term behavior change stemming from its slick ads, FNV may amount to little more than a lot of hype with little value.

And….I hope, really, that I’m wrong.