Interview with Marlene Schwartz, Director, Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity

by Charles Platkin

What motivated you to get involved with food policy and to become a food policy advocate? 

I am a clinical psychologist and I began my career as a therapist treating eating disorders and obesity.  While I loved clinical work, after a number of years I started to feel like the environment outside my office was effectively undoing everything I was trying to accomplish in my office. That is when I decided to shift to public health and work on changing the environment.

Rudd has been incredibly effective in getting media attention for their research.  Do you consider the media interest when choosing Rudd research? Do you have any specific advice for community groups and researchers regarding to increase media interest in their work?

When designing the Rudd Center, we decided early on to have a staff position dedicated to communications.  That was very unusual for a research center, but we felt that in order to have impact we needed to really push our work beyond typical academic outlets.   My advice to others who want to get more media coverage is to have a staff member who spends their time connecting with journalists.   When we decide to do a new study, we are primarily focused on whether or not it will answer an important policy question.  If it does, the media coverage usually follows.

The most recent study showed an increase in TV advertising for candy towards kids 11 and under from prior years.  How do you explain this trend considering all the negative feedback about marketing unhealthy foods towards children?

What people need to understand about our research on food marketing is that we are measuring children’s actual exposure to advertising, not whether or not the industry is doing what it promised to do.  The industry has only promised to change the mix of products they market on child-directed media – and they have a very narrow definition of child-directed media that effectively only covers shows that target very young children – like Blue’s Clues or Dora the Explorer.  What we’ve learned is that children under 12 also watch TV shows targeted to tweens and teens, and that is where they get exposed to a lot of marketing, because those shows are not covered by the industry pledges.  That is why we are pushing for the food industry to broaden their definition of “child” to go up to 14 instead of 11 years old.

What is the one food policy change at the local (or state or federal) level that would have the greatest impact on health? 

I think that the changes that are happening in schools and child care centers as part of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act are going to have a huge influence on children’s eating and health, and I am looking forward to seeing that unfold in the coming years.  After that, the two changes that I think would have the most impact are a sugary drink tax and an end to child-directed marketing for food.

What is your thinking about the connections between hunger, food insecurity and obesity? What strategies do you suggest for better integrating the efforts to reduce these two food-related problems? 

I believe that food insecurity contributes to poor diet and higher risk of diet-related diseases, including obesity.  It has become increasingly clear to me that we are never going to reverse the epidemic of obesity without also reducing hunger.  I would like to see all of the programs and policies that are designed to address hunger also consider nutrition. This has always been done in programs like WIC and the school meal programs; but it has not historically been a focus of SNAP or the emergency food system, such as food banks.   Right now I am working on a project to change how food banks and food pantries track nutrition, and I am experimenting with strategies to increase distribution of healthier foods.

Fact Sheet

What’s the last Food Policy Book or website your reading:    
In my free time I don’t read about food policy – I’d much rather read about about Broadway musicals.  I just saw Fun Home and am currently listening obsessively to the cast album of Hamilton. 🙂
Your Current Location:   The Rudd Center is at the University of Connecticut. Our offices are in Hartford.
Your Education: I have a Ph.D. In Clinical Psychology from Yale University.
Your Favorite Food:  I really like sushi.
Your Website:   www.uconnruddcenter.org

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