Communication Professor Receives White House Invitation

Dale Kunkel, a University of Arizona communication professor, has been invited to the White House to advise officials on childhood obesity in the United States.

Kunkel, who has studied issues related to children and the media for more than 25 years, is among a group of researchers and experts meeting Friday to address the Task Force on Childhood Obesity.

In February, the White House reported the task force had been established because childhood obesity had reached "epidemic rates" nationwide.

"Obesity has been recognized as a problem for decades, but efforts to address this crisis to date have been insufficient," President Obama noted in the announcement.

"My administration is committed to redoubling our efforts to solve the problem of childhood obesity within a generation through a comprehensive approach that builds on effective strategies, engages families and communities, and mobilizes both public and private sector resources."

The task force is developing a plan for the federal government, public agencies and others on how to address childhood obesity. The plan, complete with benchmarks and assessments, is scheduled to be forwarded to Obama next month.

Friday's meeting, not open to the public, will allow task force members "to help shape their ideas and recommendations," Kunkel said.

Kunkel plans to talk about the marketing of food to youth. Others, he said, may discuss issues related to nutrition in schools and children’s physical activity levels.

In December, California-based Children Now released a study by Kunkel and UA graduate students Christopher McKinley and Paul Wright that was critical of the nation's food and beverage industry. They argued that unhealthy food marketing continues to target children, contributing to obesity.

Kunkel presented the study, "The Impact of Industry Self-Regulation on the Nutritional Quality of Foods Advertised on Television to Children," at a Federal Trade Commission hearing in Washington, D.C. The study found that industry promises to improve the nutritional quality of foods marketed to children have fallen short.

In 2005, nearly 85 percent of advertisements promoted food products that had the poorest nutrition levels, based on criteria from the Department of Health and Human Services Go-Slow-Whoa food rating system. Four years later, that figure dropped only slightly to just under 73 percent, Kunkel said. 

“At the current rate of reform, unhealthy food marketing to children won’t end until the year 2033,” Kunkel observed.  “The stakes are too high to wait for that to occur.”

Kunkel also noted that the industry continues to attempt to influence the decisions children make about food choices, particularly with "licensed" characters such as Spongebob Squarepants. In effect, the industry has failed to self-regulate, Kunkel said.

"It’s an honor to be invited to the White House," said Kunkel, who also was invited there in 1998 to discuss violence on television.


By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications April 7, 2010