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Published June 06, 2011, 05:15 AM

USDA campaign reshapes dietary guidelines symbol

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said June 2 he thinks a new dietary guideline symbol — a plate divided into quarters for fruits, vegetables, grains and protein with a glass for a dairy product on the side — will not endanger the U.S. meat industry, but could encourage small farmers to grow more fruits and vegetables.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said June 2 he thinks a new dietary guideline symbol — a plate divided into quarters for fruits, vegetables, grains and protein with a glass for a dairy product on the side — will not endanger the U.S. meat industry, but could encourage small farmers to grow more fruits and vegetables.

Vilsack, First Lady Michelle Obama and Surgeon General Rebecca Benjamin released “MyPlate,” a USDA campaign to encourage Americans to fill half their plates with fruits and vegetables and the other quarters with grains and proteins.

At a news conference afterward, Vilsack said he does not fear a reduction in demand for meat or animal feed if Americans change their eating habits.

“There is tremendous demand worldwide for protein,” he said. “This does provide an opportunity to engage smaller farming systems” in increased production of fruits and vegetables, he added, noting that those smaller fruit and vegetable producers could join with the biofuels industry in revitalizing rural America.

Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of the United Fresh Produce Association, said American producers can supply an increased demand for fruit and vegetables if Americans want them. He said the first issue is to create demand.

While the Obama administration has talked about the problem of food deserts — areas where people cannot buy fresh fruits and vegetables — Stenzel said the produce will appear if there is a demand. Vouchers for the purchase of fruits and vegetables in the special nutrition program for women, infants and children known as WIC already have begun to increase demand in low-income communities.

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, said her only complaint about the MyPlate campaign is that giving one quarter of the plate to protein could encourage the consumption of more protein than Americans need. People also get protein from grains, which has its own quarter of the plate, as well as from meat poultry and fish, she said, adding that most Americans do eat more protein than they need.

But Nestle acknowledged that her complaint was only “a nutritionist’s quibble,” and said she thinks MyPlate is a “a huge step forward” over the food pyramid it replaced because it is easier to understand.

Room for dessert?

MyPlate does not include any provision for sugar or dessert, but Vilsack told Agweek that does not mean that the government is telling people not to eat them.

“This is designed to be a quick and easy tool. Obviously there are going to be opportunities for treats, for desserts.” Dairy could be sugar or dessert, he said, although he quickly added that people should be eating yogurt or drinking low-fat milk.

The food pyramid, that since 1991 has been supposed to guide Americans to eat more of some foods such as whole grains and less of sugars and fats, is considered a failure since Americans became increasingly fat and obese during the years it was promoted by USDA.

Michelle Obama, who has her own anti-obesity campaign called “Let’s Move,” said at the ceremony that MyPlate emerged from the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, which concluded in its report last year that nutritional information needed to be conveyed in a simpler manner.

Vilsack, who has struggled with weight problems all his life, said he agrees that the pyramid had been too complex.

“I tried with the pyramid — it didn’t register for me,” he said.

“Parents don’t have the time to measure out exactly 3 ounces of chicken or to look up how much rice or broccoli is in a serving,” Obama said. “But we do have time to take a look at our kids’ plates,” she said. “We do it all the time. We usually are the ones fixing the plates. And as long as they’re eating proper portions, as long as half of their meal is fruits and vegetables alongside their lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy, then we’re good. It’s as simple as that. That’s how easy this can be for parents.”

She added that the plate is simple enough for children to understand, and said she and President Obama plan to explain it to their daughters, Sasha and Malia.

But the first lady also said she knows the MyPlate campaign isn’t enough to end childhood obesity, because it can’t ensure that communities have access to affordable fruits and vegetables or spur kids to get active.

“We’re going to build momentum around MyPlate with a coordinated long-term strategy that’s going to include working with community and national partners and connecting with Americans through social media,” she concluded.

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