- Washington Guardian - Thursday, November 29, 2012

Eat your vegetables! Get some exercise! Have some candy! How about a whiskey? All of those messages are being paid for by the same source – your tax dollars.

The U.S. government may spend a lot of money to encourage Americans to eat their vegetables, but it’s also dedicating dollars to persuade foreigners to buy American candy and spirits.

The mixed – perhaps contradictory – messages are a result of diverse federal programs that are spending millions of dollars a year with very different goals. Domestically, the Obama administration has made healthier eating – to fight obesity – a key priority. At the same time, it is trying to help U.S. companies sell their products overseas – even if those products are high in sugar or alcohol.

It’s all part of the more than $16 billion the government has spent in the last decade on advertising, marketing and public relations contracts.

Whether it’s a vegetable garden or a multimedia advertising campaign, promoting healthy living has been important to President Barack Obama. As a result, there have been a variety of marketing efforts over the past four years, with multiple federal agencies working to promote messages related to exercise, food and overall health, a review by the Washington Guardian and the Medill News Service found.

The White House’s first push was to put fitness on the national stage.  In February 2010, First lady Michelle Obama launched the “Let’s Move” campaign to tackle the childhood obesity epidemic. President Barack Obama simultaneously launched the Task Force on Childhood Obesity to create a government-wide effort to support his wife’s plan.

A key player in the task force is the Department of Health and Human Services. Obama made the department responsible for educating the public to make informed decisions when grocery shopping and while dining out. In September 2010, the agency launched a multimedia campaign totaling more than $9 million to promote healthy lifestyles, reflecting the White House’s obesity prevention efforts.

“Curbing the obesity epidemic requires committed people and organizations across the nation working together to take action,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement when the anti-obesity initiative was announced.

Another agency working to promote healthy eating is the Department of Agriculture. The USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion in 2011 launched its “MyPlate” campaign, including the agency’s new plate-shaped icon that replaced the food pyramid.

But at the same time, the department’s Foreign Agricultural Service awards funds each year to U.S. agriculture and food companies to help promote their products overseas – and some of the recipients don’t necessarily align with the administration’s emphasis on healthy foods.

Through its largest program, the Market Access Program, the USDA allocated $200 million in 2012 to food industry groups and associations to help pitch their products overseas.

Among them is the National Confectioners Association, which received $1.3 million to promote sugary foods and candy abroad.

Alcohol companies are also big recipients. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States has received more than $250,000 to promote whiskey and other alcoholic beverages overseas. The Brewers Association was awarded $400,000 in 2012, and the Wine Institute received $6.9 million in 2012, making it one of the largest MAP recipients. Beef sellers also got into the action.

Despite their apparently contradictory nature, the two efforts have borne fruit.

According to Dr. Robert Post, deputy director of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, the White House’s emphasis on health has helped make USDA’s MyPlate program a success. 

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