According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 16.9 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 19 are obese, with the number jumping to 20 percent for children between 6 and 11 years old. This is an over 200 percent increase since 1974, when just five percent of children were considered obese.
A major reason for the alarming upward trend in national obesity rates are foods laden with artificial sugar, saturated fats, and preservatives, coupled with the fact that children are being bombarded by advertisements for these foods every time they watch TV or go online.
Michelle Obama and Disney are hoping to change that.
Getting into Character to Change Children’s Attitudes
Six years ago, Disney became the first major media company to establish nutrition guidelines. Since then, Disney Consumer Products has sold over two billion servings of Disney licensed fruits and vegetables in North America. Disney’s recent announcement took its campaign a step further, making it the first company to introduce new standards for food advertising on programming targeting kids and families.
In addition to the First Lady, Disney’s recent event featured Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Head Chef Gary Jones, Wolfgang Puck Restaurant Head Chef Tom Blundell, and an appearance from Mickey Mouse himself, working with the chefs to create healthy smoothies for the attendees prior to the announcement. Attendees were also presented with a smorgasbord of healthy foods, including delicious egg white frittatas and elaborate fresh fruit centerpieces, followed by photo ops with Mickey.
Mickey Mouse and other characters play an extremely important role in Disney’s ability to make an impact on children and change their dietary habits. According to a Disney press statement, “the company has successfully combined its unique storytelling, beloved characters, and unparalleled reach to make healthier lifestyles for families more appealing and more fun.”
“We’ve been able to increase the number of healthier options in store shelves as a result of [our changes],” said Disney Chairman and CEO Robert Iger at the event. “This has been a win for us, a win for the food companies, and a big win for families.”
Childhood Obesity is as Real as the Digital Divide
Iger’s words hold true – Disney has helped families make a big win indeed. “Since we started offering items like carrots and milk as the primary choice for kids’ meals in our parks and resorts instead of fries and soda, we’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that sixty percent of parents are choosing the healthier options,” he stated.
But the win will be much bigger for some families than for others.
Minorities seem to be the hardest hit by the obesity epidemic in all areas. Since 1988, obesity rates among white boys has increased from 11.6 percent to 16.7 percent, according to the CDC. However, among black and Hispanic boys, obesity rates have nearly doubled, increasing from 10.7 percent to 19.8 percent for black boys and 14.1 percent to 26.8 percent for Hispanic boys.
For girls, the trend is similar. Among white girls, obesity rates have increased from 8.9 percent to 14.5 percent since 1988; among black girls, rates have increased from 16.3 percent to 29.2 percent; and among Hispanic girls, rates have increased from 13.4 percent to 17.4 percent. Although the increase in obesity rates for Hispanic girls is the smallest, a higher percentage of Hispanic girls are obese than white girls, and black girls have the highest obesity rates across the board.
A 2011 Northwestern University study analyzed the differences in the role of the media in the lives of children from different ethnic backgrounds. The study found that among 8- to 18-year olds, there is a significant disparity in the amount of total media exposure between whites and minorities. While white children get just over eight and a half hours of exposure per day, African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians average about thirteen hours of exposure per day. Of television exposure alone, white children average about three and a half hours per day, compared with over four and a half to nearly six hours of exposure per day among minorities.
While on the whole, children are consuming entirely too much media on all accounts, this data may mean that Disney’s new campaign will be the most beneficial for African Americans and Hispanics, who overwhelmingly have the highest obesity rates.
The First Lady Weighs In
First Lady Michelle Obama has long been an advocate of healthy lifestyles among children and adolescents. In 2010, her Let’s Move! campaign teamed up with Disney’s Magic of Healthy Living initiative, leading to high profile events with the First Lady and Disney child stars to raise awareness. Obama lauded Disney’s campaign and its success at the event.
“Disney has been taking steps to help our kids lead healthier lives for many years,” she said. “Their Magic of Healthy Living campaign is helping kids eat healthy, get active, and have fun while doing it. They’ve helped build playgrounds and community gardens in neighborhoods all across this country. And even earlier this year, they got me to do the platypus walk.”
Obama also highlighted the obstacles many parents face in trying to ensure their kids maintain a balanced diet. Parents do their best to teach their kids healthy habits, but “when the kids turn on the TV to watch their favorite shows, all that hard work is undermined whenever there is a commercial break. I mean, it’s a constant battle, and it’s a tough one. And so many parents are left feeling like the deck is stacked against them.”
Having experienced first-hand the struggles many parents face trying to encourage healthy eating habits in their children, Obama announced that she was “thrilled that Disney is stepping forward in such a big way to stand alongside America’s parents. I am thrilled that they’re raising their nutrition standards and introducing the Mickey Check and making it easier for moms and dads to make those decisions.”
In addition to Disney’s new advertising standards, the company also announced its new “Mickey Check,” an icon that will draw attention to nutritious food and menu items sold in stores, online, and in Disney restaurants and food venues by the end of 2012.
Chairman Iger was excited and optimistic. “It’s going to take a collaborative effort from all of us to make [this] shift happen,” he said. “And I believe we’re off to a good start.”
Marcella Gadson is the Editor in Chief of the Broadband and Social Justice Blog and Director of Communications at the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council (MMTC).