The “uncomplicated symbol,” as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack calls it, emphasizes vegetables, fruits, grains, protein, and dairy – in that order.
The new icon captures what you see when you look down to eat (assuming you’re not eating from a takeout carton, which would be far worse), and it turns that view into a simple, comprehensible reminder of what should be there. The plate is half full of vegetables and fruit – actually, labeled color blocks – half full of protein and grains, with a glass of dairy on the side.
"When mom or dad comes home from a long day of work, we're already asked to be a chef, a referee, a cleaning crew. So it's tough to be a nutritionist, too,” says First Lady Michelle Obama. “But we do have time to take a look at our kids' plates. As long as they're half full of fruits and vegetables, and paired with lean proteins, whole grains and low-fat dairy, we're golden."
It’s also a website: ChooseMyPlate.gov. Much of the federal government’s nutrition education programs are based on the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, launched this past January. Quite simply, it tells us to:
- Eat less and avoid oversized portions.
- Make half the plate fruits and veggies.
- Switch to fat-free or 1% milk.
- Make at least half the grains whole grains.
- Reduce sodium.
- Replace sugary drinks with water.
I grew up with the 4 food groups concept myself, though the well-recognized pyramid – which has been criticized as too abstract and complicated – has been around since 1992 (the 1991 version was quickly withdrawn, and the 1992 edition lasted until a 2005 makeover). Secretary Vilsack admits that he had never been able to make sense of the pyramid.
The overall cost of the initiative, according to the Wall Street Journal, was approximately $2.9 million over a 3-year period. However, as the Sacramento Bee reports, the new food guide is at odds with federal subsidies:
The federal government spends about $16 billion per year on agricultural subsidies. While more than 60% of agricultural subsidies in recent history have directly and indirectly supported meat and dairy production, less than 1% has gone to fruits and vegetables.
More makeovers might be due. But for now, as the First Lady puts it, "What's more useful than a plate? What's more simple than a plate?"
You can even take a picture of your dishy platter and share it with the USDA on Twitter (hashtag #MyPlate) or Flickr.