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To Change our Food Landscape, Patience is a Virtue


This week the Inside Track continues a series of interviews with members of the Strategic Advisory Committee of Voices for Healthy Kids, a joint initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and American Heart Association, exploring their various contributions to the fight against childhood obesity. Connect with this week's Leader, Margo Wootan, through her PreventObesity profile here

When Margo Wootan was completing her Ph.D. in nutrition science, she knew she wanted to go into policy work. “My adviser at Cornell thought this was a very bad idea, but luckily I didn’t listen,” she said.

Instead, she took a postdoctoral fellowship at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). That was more than 20 years ago, and Wootan has been there ever since, bringing her “nutrition science perspective” to a variety of policy initiatives CSPI has undertaken, from getting nutrition labels on packaged foods to the battle against trans fats.

“CSPI had the same vision of bringing science into policymaking,” she explained. The organization, started by scientists 40 years ago, had a signature victory earlier in its history when it led the nutrition-label effort, Wootan said. It’s an issue they’ve continued to fine-tune.

In her own time at CSPI, she points with particular pride to her work to better regulate and inform consumers about trans fats. This lengthy campaign, she points out, is representative of the patience with which activists must approach public health problems.

“When I first started working on trans fat, few organizations even knew what it was or had positions on it,” she said, but CSPI “thought the science was troubling enough that disclosure was needed.”

That took years of coalition-building: “Some of our coalition partners actually opposed trans fat labeling but now completely and totally support it. At first it was a lack of understanding, and then as they started to look at it more as we brought it into the public eye and the attention of major health organizations.”

The policy debates in which CSPI is involved are sometimes controversial. But as Wootan notes, “a little controversy is not a bad thing. When an issue is controversial, you can draw public attention.”

She said that since the passage of rules requiring that they be listed on nutrition labels, the amount of trans fats in the American food supply has fallen by about 75 percent. That process, from the time CSPI first petitioned the FDA about trans fats to the time the labeling requirement kicked in, took 13 years.

“When I first started working at CSPI I used to wish I had a magic wand to just change these policies that would help Americans avoid cancer, heart disease and diabetes,” she said. “Maybe I watched too many Disney princess movies when my daughter was little!”

But she has grown to be grateful for the time needed to make policy changes, because it provides a valuable period of time to create acceptance for such changes. “Changing policy too quickly or magically wouldn’t work as well. An issue has to evolve. We need to educate the public and bring policymakers along to the point where people are interested and care about it,” she said. “The advocacy around passing the policy is a key way that we do nutrition education for the public.”

These days, CSPI is working with the Voices for Healthy Kids on improving the nutritional quality of kids’ meals and addressing marketing issues such as the toys that come along with fast food.

“Right now kids’ meals are synonymous with junk—pizza with a side of fries and a soda,” she said. “Ten years from now our hope is to make them much healthier, so we can have the kids’ food be the healthiest food in the restaurant, not the worst as it is now.”

Her hope, and one that she’s seen borne out with other healthy societal changes, is that “five years from now, people will think, ‘Why did we have such junky kids’ meals?’ My grandkids will say, ‘Schools used to have soda and candy?’ It will seem unbelievable to them.”

Donna Brutkoski authored this article.