(With a click of her mouse, EatingLiberally’s kat corners Dr. Marion Nestle, NYU professor of nutrition and author of Food Politics and What to Eat:)

kat: Nutrition education’s a total bust, according to a recent AP report. Supposedly, our government will spend more than $1 billion this year to fund programs designed to get kids eating more fruits and vegetables, but the AP reviewed 57 such programs and found that most of them failed: "Just four showed any real success in changing the way kids eat--or any promise as weapons against the growing epidemic of childhood obesity."

What's your diagnosis? Is nutrition education a waste of money, a la abstinence-only sex education? Can we win the war on blubber?

Dr. Nestle: I hardly know where to begin on this but let's start with the $1 billion figure. Where did that come from? The last I heard, the federal government spent $2-3 million--a tiny fraction of a billion--on nutrition education for the public and that was for the now obsolete 5-A-Day campaign. When that campaign started in California, it worked pretty well to raise the number of fruits and vegetables purchased in that state, but only as long as the advertising continued.

The same was true of the campaign run by Center for Science in the Public Interest to encourage people to choose 1% or no-fat milk. So if you don't have ongoing funding for such campaigns, the benefits slack off after a while. This is no surprise. It's why food marketers spend $10 billion or so every year just to push junk foods and beverages on TV or the Internet (and about twice that much on other forms of marketing). My current favorite: the $24 million Kellogg spent in 2006 just for media promotion of one product: Cheez-Its.

I suppose some of the government’s hypothetical billion goes to the Department of Health and Human Services campaign using Shrek to encourage kids to be more active (but not to stop eating foods with Shrek on the packages). I’m just back from Australia where supermarkets were packed with Shrek-labeled junk foods. The side panel of one such cereal promoted the “goodness of vegetables.” The cereal O’s were bright green so I guess kids could pretend they were vegetables.

But I digress. According to the AP report, when researchers stop giving kids prizes for eating fruits and vegetables, the kids stop eating them. And when kids were given free fruits and vegetables at the beginning of the year, they stopped eating them by the end. Why am I not surprised? I’ve seen wildly successful school food interventions in action and it’s obvious what it takes to change kids’ food choices: adults who care.

Success requires a principal who thinks it’s important for kids to eat well, a school food service director who takes it personally if kids don’t eat the food, teachers who are convinced that kids learn better if they eat better, and parents who support the program by not having junk foods in the house. If any one of these elements is missing, the program is doomed from the start. When the elements are all there, you see kids eating adult food, asking for cooking classes, and complaining that the food in school is better than what they get at home.

The whole point of marketing to kids is to get them to believe that they are supposed to eat food made specially for them—kids' food in funny shapes and colors and boxes. The idea is to get kids to think that they know more about what they are supposed to eat than their parents do. No wonder parents have such a hard time with food issues.

If the government is serious about wanting to do something about childhood obesity, it ought to be putting some curbs on marketing to kids—on the Internet and cell phones as well as on TV—and funding decent school lunch programs that make it easier for kids to make healthy choices. One little intervention program will not do the trick without fixing the food environment so healthy choices become the default. As my Columbia University colleague Joan Gussow once famously stated, nutrition education—real nutrition education—has never been tried. If the government really does have a billion to spend on nutrition education, it ought to be using it to teach kids to critically evaluate food marketing and recognize when they are being sold something that isn’t good for them.