The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) says that the USDA's MyPyramid for Kids, unveiled this week, fails to get across 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 (ex-FEMA director criticized for his response to Hurricane Katrina) to design a response to the obesity epidemic."
The MyPyramid for Kids initiative, comprising a new graphic symbol, lesson plans for grades 1-6 and an interactive game, was unveiled last Wednesday by agriculture secretary Mike Johanns. It is designed to be fun approach to addressing the very serious problem of childhood obesity.
"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," said Johanns. "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."
However CSPI insists that the administration should tackle diet-related disease by aggressively promoting increased consumption of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and by removing soda and junk foods from schools.
Senator Tom Harkins certainly agrees. "According to the Government Accountability Office, the vast majority of our schools - including 83 percent of elementary schools, 97 percent of middle schools, and 99 percent of high schools - allow so-called 'competitive food sources,' mostly vending machines selling sugary sodas, candy, and junk food," he told a recent summit on childhood nutrition.
"Think about a child purchasing a 20-ounce Coca-Cola during the school day. That's equivalent to 15 teaspoons of sugar."
The CPSI also wants to see the government tackle the food industry head-on in terms of marketing and advertising.
"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."
Nonetheless, there is growing evidence that healthy habits are learned early, and the USDA is confident that the MyPyramid for Kids slogan of Eat right. Exercise. Have Fun." will encourage the adoption of these habits. The American Heart Association, which also released its new dietary recommendations for children and adolescents this week, underlined the point that protecting the heart through healthy eating starts in earliest childhood.
The new recommendations, the first released by the association since 1982, draw attention to evidence that atherosclerosis begins at a young age, and that those who follow a poor diet and take too little exercise may already have build up of plaque in the arteries by adolescence.
The USDA can also point to the fact that the MyPyramid Food Guidance System website, MyPyramid.gov, has experienced more than 800 million hits, and that MyPyramid Tracker, a personalized assessment tool that provides information on diet quality, now has nearly 480,000 registered users.
The MyPyramid for Kids activities for children and classroom materials for educators are also available on the web at MyPyramid.gov.