NYC Food Policy Center Interview with Bettina Elias Siegel

by Deirdre Appel
Bettina Elias Siegel

Bettina Elias Siegel is a nationally recognized writer and advocate focusing on children and food policy. Her work has appeared in numerous outlets including the New York Times, the Guardian, the Houston Chronicle, the Huffington Post,and Civil Eats. In 2010 she launched her widely-read blog, The Lunch Tray, which covers topics on “kids and food, in school and out.. Her first book, Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World, was published on November 1, 2019 by Oxford University Press. Prior to her carer as a food-policy advocate, Siegel practiced intellectual property, advertising and food law in New York City. She received her BA from Yale University and her JD from Harvard Law School. 

New York City Food Policy Center (FPC): You practiced food law in New York City before shifting to writing and advocacy work. What inspired you to change careers? How does your previous work as a lawyer inform your career as a food advocate and writer?

Bettina Elias Siegel (BES): Truthfully, this whole journey has been very unexpected! I stopped practicing law because I’d never really liked it, and I was fortunate enough to be able to stay at home with our then-infant daughter and, later, our son. But after a few years of not working, I was itching for some mental stimulation and started to explore freelance magazine writing as my next career. I launched my blog, The Lunch Tray, just as a fun sideline to keep me busy while I was waiting for freelance assignments. I never expected it to change my life.

That said, my legal training has definitely been helpful in my current role as a writer and advocate. One of the few things I enjoyed about practicing law was writing briefs, which involves research, crafting of strong arguments, and boiling down a complex set of facts for the lay reader. All of those skills have been invaluable in my current work.

FPC: Your first book, Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World, recently came out. What are the most pressing issues you address in that book? What should food advocates be focused on in terms of childhood nutrition? How about parents and caregivers? Is there low-hanging fruit that we’re missing?

BES: Childhood obesity is the most obvious and pressing manifestation of our children’s toxic food environment, but what I learned in researching the book is that most children in America are eating a diet that’s far from ideal, regardless of their weight. Today’s kids are deluged with sugar (they consume far more than adults), they’re barraged by aggressive marketing for unhealthy foods and drinks, and they’re constantly “treated” by the adults in their lives for all sorts of reasons. It all adds up to a daily diet that’s sorely lacking in the whole foods—fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, and whole grains—that all growing children need.

I do offer information in Kid Food that I hope will be helpful to parents, including guidance on picky eating, tips on decoding misleading nutrition claims in the supermarket, and how to become more effective advocates for our children. But we must also focus on the larger food environment. Because even when parents are doing as much as they can to raise healthy eaters, there are forces beyond their control that too often thwart their best efforts. So I ask in the book, what can we do to curb or ban the aggressive food marketing to which kids are exposed? How can we continue to improve the school meals eaten by 30 million children a day? How might we change existing labeling regulations so parents can trust product claims and know what’s truly “healthy” for their families? 

FPC: How do you define “kid food”? Do you think there should be a distinction between food for kids and food for adults?

BES: I think we all know “kid food” when we see it, but I still needed to come up with a working definition in my book. So I first surveyed about 350 parents, who most often mentioned the kinds of foods we see on restaurant kids’ menus, things like chicken nuggets and mac ‘n cheese, as well as foods like Goldfish crackers and gummy “fruit” snacks.  I also looked at all the so-called “children’s” grocery products sold by the processed food industry, like breakfast cereals and frozen “kids’” meals, and I commissioned my own market research about those products. 

While it’s true that “kid food” can include healthy items like baby carrots or applesauce, most of what we think of as “kid food” is hyper-palatable, made from simple carbs and/or loaded with fat, sugar, and salt. It also often entices children away from healthier food by making use of interesting or unusual shapes and colors, games printed on the box, the ability to play with the food in some way, and/or the use of popular cartoon characters. All those tricks of the trade instill in children a belief that “their” food must always be especially “fun” and “exciting,” which can make healthier (“grown-up”) foods seem bland and boring by comparison. It’s very troubling.

FPC: What role does child-targeted marketing play in what kids eat? Should there be more restrictions on what products are marketed to children and where? Should food companies that sell processed or unhealthy food targeted to children be held accountable for childhood diet-related diseases? 

BES: The research is clear that children are powerfully influenced by child-directed food and beverage marketing, which makes good sense: Why else would these two industries collectively spend $2 billion a year on it? In fact, in 2006, the Institute of Medicine (now the National Academy of Medicine) issued a report to Congress explicitly stating that this marketing causes “children to prefer and request high-calorie and low-nutrient foods and beverages” and contributes to “an environment that puts their health at risk.”  So yes, I do believe these industries need to be held accountable for their role in childhood obesity, its related diseases, and for children’s generally poor diet across the board.

FPC: The Lunch Tray, your blog, for many years ran a series called “It Takes A Village to Pack a Lunch.” How did you decide on that title? Why has it become so difficult for parents to complete the simple task of packing their child a healthy and well-balanced lunch? 

BES: Sending your kids to school with a nutritious, home-packed lunch is a privilege that’s unfortunately out of reach for too many lower-income families. But even as I appreciated my ability to do it every day, it also became quite tedious! And I think I wasn’t alone in falling into a lunch rut. Kids often cling to their tried-and-true favorites, and parents are sometimes hesitant to pack too many new or healthier items for fear that their child will refuse to eat them and will then go hungry all afternoon. So that’s what led me to start that series, which was an annual collection of various experts’ guidance on school-lunch-packing, including new recipe ideas, tips on dealing with picky lunch eaters, and information on the latest lunch gear. I only ended the series when my own two kids entered high school—at which point, I think I’d packed something like 3,500 lunches! 

FPC: You recently posted an article on your blog about the New York City Schools’ potentially banning flavored milks. What role do sugar-sweetened beverages play in childhood obesity? Are there other items you think should be banned in school lunchrooms?  

BES: When I first started blogging, I wasn’t all that troubled by the presence of flavored milk in school cafeterias. But over the years, we’ve learned a lot more about how much added sugar is too much for kids, while also discovering that milk isn’t necessarily the “essential” food the dairy industry claims it is. So my views on that issue have definitely evolved. My personal preference would be to allow cafeterias to serve flavored milk just once a week, so kids regard it as a special treat rather than as a daily beverage.

As for other problematic items in the cafeteria, I advocate in Kid Food for getting rid of all “copycat” products, and by that I mean the packaged foods and beverages that have been tweaked to meet school nutrition regulations but that still bear the same junk food brands and mascots as their unhealthy, off-campus counterparts. Examples include Froot Loops for Schools, Pop-Tarts, Cheetos, and Domino’s Smart Slice pizza. As long as those junk food brands continue to be offered and sold in our school cafeterias, we’re seriously undermining school meals’ potential to educate children about good nutrition.

FPC: You recently posted a comment on Twitter about the disappearing lunch hour and the limited time children get to eat. Should schools consider bringing back the full hour for lunch? How do shortened lunch periods impact children? Are there school districts across the country that are maintaining the lunch hour or is this a theme nation-wide?

BES: Research shows that too-short lunch periods not only deprive kids of needed relaxation and socialization, they also shortchange kids nutritionally: if a child has only a few minutes to eat (after waiting in line and finding a seat), she of course doesn’t have time to consume a complete, balanced meal. That said, the problems pushing districts to cut lunch periods are intense and not easily solved, ranging from cafeterias that are too small to curriculum demands. But if students, parents, and concerned teachers organized and pushed back vocally, they might persuade at least some districts to find ways, other than shortening lunch, to create more time in the classroom.

FPC: Do you think some school districts are doing more than others to provide children with healthier, more nutritious school food, and, if so, why do you think that’s the case?

BES: One of my concerns about writing Kid Food’s school food chapter was that I might be painting too grim a picture. Most districts’ meal programs are still reliant on highly processed foods and menus that skew toward “carnival food,” even after the Obama-era reforms, and I wanted to explain why it’s the case. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some progressive districts out there doing a terrific job. But my question is always: are those programs fully replicable? Are they securing outside funding or other assistance that’s not available to every district in the country? What do their particular labor costs look like; what’s the composition of their student population; how supportive are parents in those districts of healthier meals? I always want to laud the districts that are doing a great job, but access to healthier, fresher school meals shouldn’t be dependent on where a child happens to live. 

FPC: You have two kids of your own. Has the way you approach food changed since you became a mother? 

BES: Becoming a mother is precisely why I started writing The Lunch Tray and then Kid Food, because being responsible for the care and feeding of two little humans really opened my eyes to the ways in which our society makes it very hard for parents to raise healthy eaters. In fact, before I had children I was actually a lawyer for Big Food, and I often personally signed off on child-directed advertising for less-than-healthy products! So I think it’s fair to say that having kids entirely changed my view about these issues.

FPC: What is your best advice for families who are trying to introduce their children to healthy foods?

BES: Based on all the research I did for Kid Food, I’d say that the best advice is to avoid short-order cooking at all costs—no jumping up to make pasta if your child rejects your healthy meal—and also to avoid exerting any kind of pressure on children to try healthier foods, even by offering praise. One fascinating study cited in the book found that when a group of preschoolers was offered an unfamiliar soup, reactions were far more negative—lots of “yucks” and “I won’t eat it”—among those whose teacher urged them to try it, as compared to those who weren’t similarly pressured. 

That said, I know from experience that it’s very hard to just sit on your hands as your child regularly spurns healthier foods, so in Kid Food’s appendix, I also direct readers to a number of terrific child-feeding experts and other useful resources to help keep kids on the right track as they’re learning and growing at the family table.

FPC: What is the one food policy change at the federal level that would have the greatest impact on childhood nutrition?

BES: Around 11 million children in America live in food insecure households, so it seems to me that our most pressing problem is addressing childhood hunger—by making school meals universal, expanding access to SNAP, and other, similar policy changes.  But in terms of the specific issues I address in Kid Food, my number-one priority would be to ban child-directed marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages, which clearly stokes kids’ demand for products that demonstrably harm their health. 


Grew up in: Long Island, Tucson, and Southern California 

City or town you call home: I’m torn between saying New York City, which has always felt like home (and where I hope to someday return), and Houston, where I currently live and which I’ve grown to love.

Job title:  writer and advocate

Background and education: I attended Yale College and Harvard Law School, after which I practiced law in New York City for about 10 years. I then became a Houston stay-at-home mom, and eventually turned to a career in writing and advocacy. 

One word you would use to describe our food system: Sorry for the lack of originality, but “broken” seems most apt.

Food policy hero:  I dedicated Kid Food to the late Dana Woldow, a dear friend and mentor who was a passionate school-food advocate both in her San Francisco district and nationally. In addition to fighting for healthier school meals, she also sought to eradicate socioeconomic stigma in the cafeteria, including the so-called “meal of shame” for children with meal debt—and she did so long before “lunch shaming” entered the national vocabulary

Your breakfast this morning:  Just coffee! (I’ve been experimenting with intermittent fasting and have discovered to my surprise that I don’t really need breakfast at all.)

Favorite food:  Pizza, pizza, pizza.

Last meal on Earth: My grandmother used to fry cooked pasta in butter until it was crisp and lightly golden, season it with salt and paprika, and serve it with sour cream. I don’t eat that dish often, but it’s my ultimate comfort food.

Favorite food hangout:  Houston! It’s the most ethnically diverse city in the country right now, and there’s just an endless array of wonderful restaurants to explore.

Food policy social media must follow: It’s so hard to choose, but if I have to pick just a few, I’ll say Civil Eats, New Food Economy, Marion Nestle, and Helena Bottemiller Evich at Politico.

Book you can’t put down: I just finished Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind, about psychadelics, which I found fascinating, and I’m currently reading Bee Wilson’s The Way We Eat Now, which is a trove of eye-opening information about our current food system and eating habits.

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