The U.S. Department of Agriculture has unveiled what it describes as a a "child-friendly" version of its widely ridiculed food pyramid, called "MyPyramid for Kids." Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns visited an Alexandria, Va., elementary school to unveil the new graphic symbol, lesson plans for grades 1-6 and an interactive game.
"This is a fun approach to addressing the very serious problem of childhood obesity," said Johanns. "As teachers take advantage of the lesson plans and children learn what it takes to win the game, messages about the importance of healthy eating and physical activity will take hold. We know that MyPyramid captured America's attention and our hope is that MyPyramid for Kids will inspire the same level of interest and help to improve the health of America's kids."
But critics said the kids' version of the food pyramid is "as ineffective as the adult version," as the the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) put it. The adult version of the pyramid was derided for being "Sphinxlike," conveying very little usable information.
CSPI said that MyPyramid for Kids, like the adult MyPyramid, fails to convey the otherwise sensible advice found in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and is emblematic of an Administration that has no real commitment to improving Americans' diets.
"My Pyramid for Kids doesn't dare to discourage children from consuming so much soda, fast food, candy, and other junk foods," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "Even if MyPyramid for Kids were terrific, there's no strategy to put materials in every classroom in America -- they're actually only making them available upon request. It's as if they've asked Mike Brown to design a response to the obesity epidemic."
CSPI said that if the Administration wanted to reduce the toll of diet-related disease, it could start by aggressively promoting increased consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; removing soda and junk foods from schools; getting junk-food ads of children's television; and supporting legislation that would put calorie counts on fast-food menu boards.
And instead of relying solely on the Internet, the government should take to the airwaves, according to CSPI.
"When McDonald's wants to reach kids, it turns to television advertising first and foremost," said Jacobson. "If government is to improve kids' eating habits it should invest hundreds of millions of dollars on television advertising promoting healthy diets. If such a campaign made even a dent in obesity or diet-related disease, it would be a windfall for American taxpayers."
USDA insists MyPyramid for Kids provides age-appropriate information about the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the MyPyramid Food Guidance System released earlier this year.
"The new MyPyramid for Kids symbol represents the recommended proportion of food from each food group and focuses on the importance of making smart food choices every day," USDA said.
The interactive computer game, called MyPyramid Blast Off, involves a rocket that needs fuel to blast off. The game reinforces the key concepts of MyPyramid for Kids by challenging students to select a healthy variety of foods and physical activities to fuel their rockets.
In its publicity material, USDA said the MyPyramid Food Guidance System website, MyPyramid.gov, has experienced more than 800 millon hits and MyPyramid Tracker, a personalized assessment tool that provides information on diet quality, now has nearly 480,000 registered users.
But CSPI said the Web site actually has had little impact.
"A search via the web service Alexa.com shows that traffic peaked immediately after the site's launch, and plummeted quickly thereafter. On a given day, traffic at web gaming sites designed to promote junk food, such as Postopia.com or Candystand.com, far outpaces traffic at MyPyramid.gov," Jacobson said.