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Fall 2009
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Sidebar: Applied Social Sciences

Building the Pyramid

The media and book reviewers have christened Wansink with many colorful monikers, the "Wizard of Why," the "Sherlock Holmes of Food," and the "Nutrition Swami" among them. For the final year-and-a-half of President George W. Bush's second term, he could claim another: "Food Czar."

On Nov. 19, 2007, Wansink became executive director of the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP), a position with great authority to set the nation’s food agenda. In his limited time in Washington, Wansink targeted nutritional gatekeepers—individuals (usually women) responsible for purchasing and preparing a family’s meals—with his makeover of the Food Guide Pyramid. By focusing on this demographic, www.MyPyramid.gov increased its web hits to 5.6 million per day, becoming the most accessed .gov web site in the federal domain.

"For years, the food pyramid was this convoluted concept that few people understood or used," says Wansink, whose research is credited with developing the popular 100-calorie snack packs. "Guided by my research from the Food and Brand Lab, I felt it was best to target the nutritional gatekeepers and orient the pyramid around menu planners and other easy-to-use features. Instead of targeting everyone, you capture one person who shapes the eating habits for the entire family."

Wansink also oversaw the development of the 2010 federal dietary guidelines, a review that occurs every five years between the USDA and the Department of Health and Human Services. His work at the USDA led ABC World News to name him its "Person of the Week" in January 2008.

"Serving at the USDA helped me become more sophisticated with my research," he says. "You quickly gain a sense of what's possible when it comes to practice, policy, and daily life. In academia, we sometimes come up with great, incredibly nuanced ideas that just wouldn’t go very far in the real world. That's the wonderful challenge."