Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Mom The Nutritional Gate-Keeper

An article in the Washington Post tells us in no uncertain terms who should be responsible for making Americans slimmer: the moms, or rather the women in families who are already responsible for buying the food and for cooking it. This is the idea of Brian Wansink, the new head of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion at the Agriculture Department. And what does Mr. Wansink want?

Now he wants to recruit mothers to help him whittle the widening national girth. Project M.O.M. is a new USDA campaign that targets the nutritional gatekeepers in every household who call the shots on nourishment.

Society may have changed enormously in the past 50 years, but some things have not: Regardless of social status, income, education, the ability to cook from scratch or to find the closest fast-food restaurant with GPS, "the reality is that the bulk of purchases about food are done by mothers in the household," Wansink says.

Money for nutrition education at the USDA is tight. So Wansink plans to stretch those dollars: Rather than trying to "convince every person in the U.S. to eat better," he says, why not "get the nutritional gatekeeper . . . the one person who makes the decision" to change?

This is one of those examples where "the reality" and "what is fair" diverge from each other. It's certainly true that women do the bulk of grocery shopping and cooking, even those women who work as long hours in the labor market as their male partners. Indeed, women do most of the unpaid work (in hours per year) that having a family entails. So why not just add another moral requirement for that overworked group: the responsibility for the weight of all the family members, including the other adults in the family.

It's wonderful that the government aims to save money by only educating the mothers. This all but guarantees that men won't learn how to eat in a healthier manner, of course, but never mind. The mom will always be there (after a long day at work, in most cases) to make sure that everybody eats enough spinach.

I probably should add the usual warning here: I am not opposing the idea that nutritional information wouldn't be important to disseminate. I'm opposing the unquestioning assumption that it is women who should be the nutritional gate-keepers for everyone else.