Analyzing USDA Food Guides

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The USDA’s guidelines on what constitutes a healthy, balanced diet for Americans have changed time and time again over the past century. Most of us recognize one or several of these images because they have circulated throughout mainstream media during their respective decades. Children learn about the USDA approved food guide in grade school. Growing up I remember seeing posters of the 1992 Food Guide Pyramid on bulletin boards of the school cafeteria and in many of the classrooms I stepped foot in. Many of my classmates, including me, accepted this diagram as a visual representation of how to properly formulate your daily food intake. We thought of these food guidelines as common sense that encompassed the “right” way to eat.

Robert Cox’s “Social/Symbolic Constructions of ‘Environment'” in Environmental Communication and the Public Sphere explains how a dominant discourse, or a discourse that has gained a normalized status in culture, can flow rampantly through the public sphere, yet remain invisible in terms of consciousness to most (63). Just as I did as a child, many Americans fall into the dominant discourse of USDA nutrition guidelines. The USDA exercises its legitimacy, or its “right to exercise authority”, through these illustrations because not only does the USDA claim legitimacy of these values but a large amount of the public grants its legitimacy (64). Furthermore, these USDA approved diagrams give Americans an easy, simplified way of looking at their daily nutritional intake that puts types of food into specific groups. Placing kinds of food into categories and labeling how much of each food group a person should have daily can be seen as a “terministic screen”, or the means whereby our language orients us to see certain things, some aspects of the world and not others (62). These diagrams follow directly in accordance with the “business as usual” model for economic growth in the US.

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3 responses »

  1. Great example. I think it could go much further. How does the USDA get legitimacy from the public? What is not seen in the terministic screen you imply the USDA is using? Can you use specific examples that draw on the image? Images do not speak for themselves! Tell me more about how they follow the business as usual model for economic growth? What is the link between the food pyramid and economic growth? I’d love to hear more on this.

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