Kids: The should-have-been-expected stakeholder

In recent weeks, communications professionals have witnessed the power of kids through their use of social media and their ability to shift the national food policy narrative.

In recent weeks, communications professionals have witnessed the power of kids through their use of social media and their ability to shift the national food policy narrative. They've attempted to roll back healthier school meal standards that for the first time in 15 years require more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, less sodium and fewer calories.

A YouTube video parody of the song “We Are Young” by the band Fun is at the heart of this student movement. With nearly 1 million views, Kansas high school students have spread their “We are Hungry” message across the nation. Among the lyrics is the following: "Give me some seconds/ I need to get some food today/My friends are at the corner store/Getting junk so they don't waste away."

This video has been highlighted by news outlets, bloggers, and others, creating a surprisingly loud student-driven drumbeat. Kansas students aren't the only ones stirring the pot; Pittsburgh students protested school lunches by using the Twitter hashtag #BrownBagginIt so much so that it was trending locally. Others, like students in a Wisconsin school district, boycotted the school's cafeteria.

Interest groups have responded by launching resources and materials that support the current meal standards; letters to the editor have been published, and the US Department of Agriculture has responded by telling kids to eat more snacks. Clearly, kids have largely reframed the school food debate.

Many of us believed that the conversation about the nutritional quality of school food peaked after the USDA released its proposed rule to update school breakfast and lunch nutrition standards in January, 2011. USDA alone received over 132,000 public comments from nutrition advocates to food service operators, moms, and the food and beverage industry.

Changing what schools serve their students is of course no easy feat, from ordering to the food's presentation.  A food service director once told me their money is counted down to the tenth of a cent, and with added fruit and vegetable requirements, lunches become more expensive to serve. Many of the proposed rule comments expressed related concerns while others touted the benefits of fruits and vegetables or noted inconsistencies. No doubt, many had a stake in the outcome for a variety of reasons. Yet to the excitement of many nutrition advocates, the final meal standards met many of their objectives, were heralded as a victory, and are now being phased in over the next three years.

So we are, once again, seeing school food under fire from one of the most important stakeholder groups: kids themselves. As students head back to school, start their classes, and get to know their teachers, they've also come to see the result of this revised national food policy – healthier school meals. Three changes to school meals - calorie maximums, smaller portions, and higher prices - are at the heart of this student movement.

While it's not useful to go down the winding road of whether these claims are “valid,” what's clear is that in today's social media world, the power of kids is increasingly important. It underscores the need for communications professionals to know both when to engage them as part of a policy debate as well as how their influence and perception of a particular issue could change if a policy were to ultimately become implemented.

Moving forward, when kids are affected by a specific policy, or there is a shifting dynamic of stakeholders before and after legislation is enacted and later implemented, public relations professionals should consider these three questions:

1)      When is it appropriate to consider kids a core stakeholder group that deserves a voice at the table?

2)      What will happen to the shifting dynamic of players once a policy is enacted?

3)      How can we best prepare for this possible stakeholder shift?

 

Public relations professionals working in the policy space would benefit by building in a much-needed strategic and thorough stakeholder analysis to inform their future policy initiatives. A longer-term outlook into who matters, why, and their level of influence in this debate would have more accurately captured the significance of kids' potential reactions to the standards and the possible consequences for national food policy.

Alexandra Lewin-Zwerdling is a director at Powell Tate, working on Food, Nutrition and Stakeholder issues.  She was previously with USDA, where she oversaw the USDA foods communications Initiative.

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