I’ve just published an article on the Digital Divide Network about the USDA’s MyPyramid.gov and the problems faced by marginalized populations accessing government nutritional information that’s only available on the Internet. A reprint of the article can be found below. -andy
This week, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) unveiled its newest food pyramid. First launched in 1992, the food pyramid is intended as an easy-to-use tool to convey healthy nutrition guidelines to the general public. Unlike the previous pyramid, which was a one-size-fits-all dietary recommendation, the new pyramid is actually a collection of a dozen different pyramids, each one designed to target specific groups of people based on their age, gender and activity level. That way, individuals may select a pyramid that’s personalized for their health needs.
On Tuesday, the USDA launched MyPyramid.gov
, a new website for disseminating the updated food pyramid to the general public. While health experts debate the nutritional merits of the new pyramid, it’s raised eyebrows among some activists involved in the digital divide movement because of the way the new pyramid was rolled out primarily as an online resource. Since the website is currently the only easy way for members of the public to determine which personalized food pyramid applies to them, it begs the question of how offline populations will gain access to these new guidelines.
Earlier this week, I posted one of the first stories
on this issue on my blog
. In it, I noted that many of the potential target audiences for the new pyramid, such as low-income households and ethnic minorities, face many challenges gaining access to the Internet, thus denying them easy access to important health information. Here at the Digital Divide Network, we’ve written extensively about this issue, which we often refer to as “e-government for all”: in other words, ensuring that all members of the public have equal access to government services and information, no matter their income, education level, ethnicity, language spoken or physical ability. Quoting our 2004 report E-Government for All: Ensuring Equitable Access to Online Government Services
It is all too common, for example, that information on most government websites is skewed to the needs and abilities of highly educated citizens. For low-literate populations, the Web remains an untapped resource. People with disabilities, such as the visually impaired, continue to struggle with government websites that don’t address their accessibility needs…. Millions of people are effectively cut off from these increasingly essential resources as long as government information and services are not offered appropriately to accommodate their needs…. As U.S. government agencies expand e-government, a pressing question remains what will happen to these underserved, marginalized populations, particularly as traditionally offline government services are replaced entirely by online services.
The MyPyramid.gov website raises similar concerns. In this particular case, certain populations that would benefit the most from accessing the latest government nutritional guidelines are some of the least-likely populations to have access to the technology or the skills to accomplish this.
By The Numbers: Obesity, Overweightness and the Digital Divide
According to the US Surgeon General’s website, ethnicity and income level are contributing factors to obesity and overweightness:
- In women, overweight and obesity are higher among members of racial and ethnic minority populations than in non-Hispanic white women.
- In men, Mexican Americans have a higher prevalence of overweight and obesity than non-Hispanic whites or non-Hispanic blacks.
- For all racial and ethnic groups combined, women of lower socioeconomic status are approximately 50% more likely to be obese than those of higher socioeconomic status.
And it’s not just adults faced with these health challenges, according to the USDA pamphlet, Facts About Childhood Obesity and Overweightness:
- Low-income white adolescents were about 2.6 times as likely to be overweight as those in middle- or high-income families.
- Overweight and obesity rates among children and adolescents were highest for Mexican American males age 6 to 11 (17 percent), African American females age 6 to 19 (16 percent), and adolescents age 12 to 19 from low-income households (16 percent).
Paradoxically, many of the demographic groups faced with these health challenges correspond with the same groups that are most likely to be on the wrong side of the digital divide. According to the US Department of Commerce report, A Nation Online 2004, only 37.2% of Latinos and 45.6% of African Americans have Internet access at home, compared with 65.1% of white households. The statistics are even starker when you examine household Internet access by income: while 82.9% of households earning $75,000 or more are online, only 31.2% of households making $15,000 or less are online. The deeper you dig into the data, the clearer it becomes: ethnicity, income and education level remain barriers to bridging the digital divide. This fact has enormous consequences when it comes to relying on the Internet as a tool for conveying public health information to at-risk audiences.
The USDA’s Response
Following the launch of MyPyramid, I contacted the USDA and spoke with Jackie Haven of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion to learn more about the USDA’s strategy. “[The Web] seemed like such an excellent resource and a way to reach many masses of people,” she said, noting the site received 62 million hits yesterday. Haven explained that the original pyramid, launched in 1992, came with a 32-page booklet that offered details on nutrition, “but no one had really seen it.” Creating a website with nutritional information, therefore, seemed like a natural course of action.
“With the Internet, it’s really possible to personalize this a little bit more for consumers,” she continued. “So it really seemed like the best and only avenue to reach more people and to help personalize it for everybody.”
Haven described Tuesday’s launch of the MyPyramid website as part of a three-year initiative to get the word out about the new nutritional guidelines. For the time being, the launch is focusing on the website, though she expects other agencies and programs, such as the Food Stamps program, to tailor the guidelines for different audiences, including low-income families, Spanish speakers and others. “We thought, ‘Let’s get it out there, let’s get the feedback,’ and we’ll continue to grow and refine what we have on the Web,” she said.
I noted the concerns that many of us in the digital divide movement have regarding equitable access to government information for all members of the public, and asked whether the USDA would contemplate launching public campaigns that utilized PSAs, toll-free numbers and other off-line communications tools. “I think we may come to that point,” Haven replied. “If we don’t, there are other agencies that might.” She went on to describe some of the educational materials available through the website, which could be downloaded by schools and intermediary organizations to pass on directly to members of the public who aren’t online. “There are also spin-off publications that are being printed as we speak,” she noted. This summer, the USDA will launch an initiative to publicize the new pyramid to all US public schools via the discounted lunch program. For now, though, people interested in the new guidelines will have to find access to the Internet.
Regarding whether the USDA had any intentions to publish MyPyramid.gov in Spanish, Haven said, “A lot of the material has been translated but it hasn’t appeared yet. So we do plan to reach out to those audiences as well.” I then turned the conversation to access for people with disabilities, noting that there is a federal US statute known as Section 508 that requires government websites to be designed with accessibility in mind. “Oh, absolutely, that was in the contract, 508 compliance,” she assured me.
Needless to say, Haven was surprised when I informed her that my rudimentary tests of the website’s homepage and an additional page suggested the site had not reached compliance. “It certainly needs to be 508 compliant,” she said, before assuring me that my concerns would be raised with appropriate people within the USDA to correct these mistakes.
In many ways, the case of MyPyramid.gov is a classic example of the challenge faced by government agencies when it comes to achieving e-government for all. There is a strong desire to utilize the Internet as a tool for reaching the general public. In that regard, I applaud them. But the desire to get information and services out to the public as rapidly and as cost-effectively as possible sometimes means that traditional off-line channels such as public service announcements, storefront government access points and telephone services get marginalized, postponed or left out of the equation entirely. In a country where two-thirds of the population is online, it’s tempting to shrug off these concerns. But the reality is we have millions of people without Internet access or the skills to use it, not to mention millions of people with disabilities whose Internet experience is severely curtailed because of insensitive website design.
There are some very simple steps the USDA could take. For example, they should create a PSA and print promotion campaign that would encourage the public to either go to the website or call a toll-free number for more information. The toll-free number would allow people to talk with an operator in English, Spanish or through an assistive device. The operator would look up the appropriate pyramid for the person, describe it to them, and dispatch appropriate materials either on paper, braille or as an audio book. Materials could also be distributed through post offices, libraries, schools, community centers, health clinics and other community institutions. Some of these materials, it seems, are already in the pipeline for later this year. For the sake of equitable access, though, it would have been much better if at least some of these offline materials had been made available at the same time the website went public. That way, people without Internet access would have had alternative mechanisms for accessing this information.
Fortunately, it seems that Jackie Haven at the USDA recognizes the limitations of the food pyramid’s online strategy. “Of course, the Web can’t reach everybody, but we’re doing our best here, and with the kind of hits we’ve been having we know we’re reaching somebody. At least we’ve gotten, I think, a fairly decent start, but we know we have our work cut out for us.”
Indeed, the USDA — as well as government agencies large and small — has their work cut out for them. So it’s incumbent upon those of us involved in the digital divide movement to support government efforts to use the Internet for public services, while at the same time getting them to understand that relying solely on the Internet to convey information and services is a sure-fire way to marginalize segments of the general population even further.