In the Los Angeles Times this week, “Overweight is the new normal” examines how changes in our environment, such as larger food portion sizes, have transformed our cultural norms surrounding food and physical activity, and our behavior.
It’s true: what surrounds us shapes our behavior. This week, we look at shifting the conversation from individual behavior, and back to the role of the environment. Media and dialogue continues to focus on an “individual choice” frame—which also neatly sidesteps the role of industries and others actively working to make half-gallon sodas the new norm.
- A Marin Independent Journal letter to the editor, “‘Overly Simplistic’ Campaign,” by a beverage industry spokesman empahsizes individual’s choices by claiming that Marin’s “Soda Free Summer” campaign does “nothing to teach people about balance and moderation.”
- An ABC Nightline article, “Candymaker Nestle Invests Billions to Decode Our Digestive Systems,” reports on the company’s huge investment in research on human metabolism. Though Nestle’s research purportedly aims to create healthier food products, a Nestle staffer explains, “We don’t put the food in people’s mouths, we are just giving them the opportunity to choose right.”
- In the Charlotte Observer, “Parents v. Policy? Yes to both” aptly describes how available options can shape—and limit—our choices. “[Policy interventions] to protect the public health are ubiquitous, but so accepted that they are invisible…now safely embedded in our culture.” The article illustrates how policy measures expand options and make healthier the default, and dryly notes that “no one is suggesting that the government force-feed us carrots…”
- Responding to McDonald’s CEO’s comment that “It is up to their parents to choose, and it is their responsibility to do so,” a Chicago Tribune piece, “The obesity epidemic: Can parents say ‘no?’” highlights how parents struggle on an unlevel playing field, where “children are continually faced with an increasingly sophisticated, and never ending onslaught, of enticements for highly processed, sugary profit drivers.” The article emphasizes the environment in which parents are simply unable to compete with nonstop “television and internet advertising, fundraising and philanthropy tie-ins, direct mail, ‘educational’ campaigns, in-house playgrounds and an actual clown as a spokesperson.”
- In the Seattle Times, “Kids battle lure of junk food” briefly examines how food industry marketing practices have evolved and expanded over the years and the resulting difficulty children face in staving off environmental pressures and cues for unhealthy food items. Former FDA commissioner David Kessler wryly notes, “We’re living in a food carnival.”
- In critiquing a proposal for school bus advertisements in New York state, “School buses no place for junk food ads,” the Times Union recognizes the impact that environmental cues have on individual behavior, correctly pointing out that school children would be a “captive audience.”
Tips to Guide your Conversation
Countering the “blame the individual” frame in your letters to the editor, op-eds, and conversations with the media requires that you shift the conversation upstream by describing the social, economic and physical environments that foster or hinder healthy behaviors.
How to Cue the Environment:
[We have pulled these tips from “What Surrounds Us, Shapes Us,” a Berkeley Media Studies Group document released through Strategic Alliance. We encourage you to read the entire document, here.]
Paint a picture that describes why healthy communities matter: When neighborhoods don’t have clean parks, places to walk, vibrant retail, or healthy food available, everyone’s health suffers. By cueing the environment you can shift the discussion to the environment’s impact and constraints on individual choice.
FrameWorks research tested three commonly shared values—fairness, ingenuity, and prevention—with good results. Linking any of the three values to environmental triggers inspired positive responses to public policy among different audiences. Here are some ways to use these values to create environmental frames:
An environmental trigger with the fairness value:
Children are healthier when they have safe places to play with well-maintained playgrounds. It’s not fair that some children in our city have this while others don’t. If we keep schoolyards open after hours, all children can have safe places to play.
An environmental trigger with the ingenuity value:
Children are healthier when they have safe places to play. Fortunately, we already have those places: schoolyards. The smart solution is to keep schoolyards open after hours so all children can be more active.
An environmental trigger with the prevention value:
Children are healthier when they have safe places to play. When schoolyards are closed after hours, some children can’t play outdoors, which means they don’t get the exercise they need to be healthy. We can prevent poor health now and in the future if we keep schoolyards open after hours.