Rudd Center continues fight against obesity

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Photo by Ken Yanagisawa .

Almost a year after Kelly Brownell, the founder and eight-year director of the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, departed his brainchild research and advocacy center to take a post as director of Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, the Rudd Center is continuing to crusade against the obesity epidemic.

Located in a stately house just past Science Hill, the center is on the periphery of most undergraduates’ standard daily radius, and its mission and work remain largely unknown to the undergraduate community. Of 32 students interviewed, only five had heard of the Rudd Center. Yet the center is one of the leading food policy research institutes in the country.

“Their impact is extraordinary,” said Tracy Orleans, senior scientist at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funds some research at the Rudd Center. “They’re the only group in the country doing work that’s documenting the extent of unhealthy food marketing to children in several domains of the food industry.”

The center’s mission is to reduce weight stigma and change the world’s diet by creating healthy food environments, and it approaches its mission in a unique way. According to Director Marlene Schwartz, research for the sake of research is foreign to the center. Rather, all of the research conducted by the center conducts explores strategies for crafting the most effective food policies. It’s an approach Schwartz calls “strategic science.” Initiatives have included investigating the effect of unhealthy food advertising on children and how changes in welfare food policy impact recipients’ purchases.

“We’re really good at studies that look at more concrete and immediate effects of policy,” she said.

And since Brownell’s departure, Orleans has seen the same quality of strategic work and research as before. Citing the leadership of Schwartz, who received her Ph.D. at Yale in 1996 under Brownell, Orleans said she believes the center continues to pursue the same research agenda that it has over the past eight years.

 

SNAP, WIC and Cigarettes

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) was created in 1972 under the Nixon Administration. For years, WIC struggled to provide high-quality, healthy food to its participants.

According to Tatiana Andreyeva, director of Economic Initiatives at the Rudd Center, because of the program’s narrow offerings, participants often used the vouchers to buy milk, juice and cereals — fruits, vegetables and whole wheat bread were not part of the package.

The Institute of Medicine released a report in 2005 on the limited package’s effects, and the need for change became apparent. The research showed participants were deficient in vitamins and minerals found in fruits and vegetables, and ingested an unhealthy excess of saturated fats and sodium.

Also alarming was the fact that, due to the age demographics of the program, children and infants were beginning life with an unhealthy diet. Four years later in 2009, Congress passed and the president signed a bill aligning the food package with the USDA’s 2005 food guidelines, adding healthier items and scrapping unhealthy ones.

The center’s research following the change, comparing availability of healthy food in WIC-authorized stores before and after 2009, was encouraging. WIC-authorized stores increased the availability and variety of healthy foods, and, notably, the change was most pronounced in low-income areas. Furthermore, surrounding stores that did not serve WIC recipients also increased their healthy food offerings. The study concluded by noting that by increasing demand for healthy food, government programs could indirectly increase availability and access to it.

But changing WIC is easier than changing other supplemental nutrition programs, Andreyeva said. Because WIC involves infants and children, incentivizing healthier choices and disincentivizing unhealthy ones feels less “paternalistic.” We tell children what to do all the time — to an extent, it feels natural for the government to join in, she said. But telling adults how to decide — what to buy and what not to buy in the grocery store — is an uphill battle.

About one in seven American rely on SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program colloquially known as food stamps, to help put food on the table. Despite the reach of the program, SNAP policies were not updated to align with the 2005 USDA guidelines. Andreyeva said SNAP is less likely to see changes than WIC.

Instead, Andreyeva said advocates may have to look beyond government food programs to encourage healthy food choices.

In the 1990s, the federal government placed a substantial tax on cigarettes. First, in 1990, the tax on cigarettes increased by 8 cents per pack. Then, in 1997, an additional 30 cents per pack was lobbed on. Smoking levels dropped substantially, and especially important in the eyes of public health officials, fewer teens picked up smoking.

Andreyeva sees the effectiveness of the cigarette taxes as a lesson to the food policy community.

“If you increase the prices of certain foods, like soda, people will definitely buy less,” she said.

Because soda consumption is a predictor of many negative health outcomes, Schwartz said, policy makers looking to find some of the most effective food policies should target decreasing consumption of sugary beverages.

This time, however, food and public health policy makers should look for help less from the federal government and more from the states, she said. Still, Andreyeva said the political controversy surrounding a federal soda tax makes passing one unlikely; no state yet has been able to pass a soda tax. Cities have taken up the issue in their stead — with New York City the best-known example.

 

Rudd Center Takes Action against Advertising

The center also emphasizes the importance of creating a healthy food environment from childhood. Jennifer Harris, the center’s director of Marketing Initiatives, researches the way advertising companies target young children. Most of the foods advertised to children are processed foods high in sugar and fat, Harris said. In fact, the foods advertised to children tend to be less healthy than those advertised to adults, she added.

The Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a program designed to encourage advertising healthier choices to children, aims to address this problem, and, to a certain extent, regulates what can be advertised to children. But the initiative is run by the television companies themselves, which have little incentive to participate, she said.

Harris said First Amendment issues make regulating advertising a challenge, so the Rudd Center is approaching the issue in a different way. Instead of going through regulatory channels, the center is bee-lining to the companies themselves. Harris describes it as “shining a spotlight” on specific companies. For instance, she said calling out specific companies on their advertising practices to children is more effective in spurring change, as blame cannot be spread throughout the industry.

And that spotlight extends to the TV channels responsible for featuring the advertisements. After a 2010 Rudd Center study found that a quarter of all unhealthy food ads targeted at kids aired on Nickelodeon, and a 2012 study conducted by the center for Science in the Public Interest found that 69 percent of foods advertised on Nickelodeon are unhealthy, Harris paired up with U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73 to hold a news conference focused on the effects of advertising unhealthy foods to children. In the conference, Blumenthal announced he would write to Nickelodeon to urge the company — which is not a member of the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative — to drop junk food ads.

The center has also set up information sites to inform parents of exactly what type of dietary choices their TV-watching children are being encouraged to make. Sites like cerealfacts.org, fastfoodmarketing.org, and sugarydrinkfacts.org are all part of a larger Rudd project called f.a.c.t.s — Food Advertising to Children and Teens Score, which aims to educate parents about the marketing environment in which their kids are growing up.

The Rudd Center is also trying to reform advertising at the source of the obesity epidemic. Harris said marketing in schools exposes young children to unhealthy foods — vending machines with Pepsi logos, scoreboards with Coca-Cola logos, lunchroom coolers plastered with Gatorade branding, and Ronald McDonald school visits for anti-bullying programs. Rudd Center is producing fact sheets for parents and others to push back against this marketing, as well as working with national organizations including the YMCA and the National Parent Teacher Association to pursue the issue.

The Rudd Center’s next report, slated for release this January, focuses on the relationship between student health and academic achievement.

Jennifer Gersten contributed reporting. 

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