The Department of Agriculture’s worst-kept secret was unveiled today in a semi-crowded Jefferson Auditorium at USDA headquarters: Michelle Obama announced the government was ditching the food pyramid in favor of the dinner plate. It was a long wait for the dishware to take center stage in the Department of Agriculture’s campaign to get America to eat better.

“We realized that we needed something that made sense not just in classrooms or laboratories, but at dinner tables and school cafeterias. We needed something useful, something simple,” the first lady said.

The response to and its attendant messaging campaign was generally positive.

Marion Nestle, professor, nutrition expert and critic of the baffling MyPyramid from 2005, had kind words for the simplified dinner plate: “It’s an enormous improvement, an enormous improvement, because it reflects where we are on dietary guidance and what we know about nutrition and health. So the things I like best about it are: half fruits and vegetables [on the plate, and] the idea that the messages that go with it start with, ‘Enjoy your food.’ What a concept, although they didn’t talk about that this morning. I don’t know what that’s about. I like the idea that you can put on the plate whatever you like, so it’s not saying what you have to eat and what you can’t eat and what you mustn’t eat. You just have to follow the proportions, and you don’t have to worry about portion sizes, because all you have to do is have an eight-inch plate and you got it made.”

Leslie Sarasin, president and chief executive of the Food Marketing Institute, which represents and advocates for grocery stores and wholesalers: “We believe the ChooseMyPlate graphic will resonate with the consumers’ actual home dining experience and provide useful nutrition guidance. According to data published earlier this year in FMI’s U.S. Grocery Shopper Trends 2011, two-thirds of American food shoppers acknowledge that their diets could be healthier. MyPlate provides a good visual base for programs, giving American consumers the information they need and they want to make good nutrition decisions for themselves and for their families.”

Tom Stenzel, president and chief executive of the United Fresh Produce Association: “It was no simple task to boil down nutrition guidance in all its complexity to a very simple icon and message. But I have to say from our industry’s perspective, the MyPlate graphic really is stunningly simple. It creates a visual that all of us and our children can look at for every meal — our breakfast, lunch and dinner. Now people have asked me: Can America’s fruit and vegetable growers actually fulfill half of that plate? I do want to tell you we can, and we’re looking forward to that opportunity.”

Neal Barnard, founder and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, in a prepared statement: “The protein portion of the USDA’s MyPlate is unnecessary, because beans, whole grains and vegetables are loaded with it. And it is a shame that MyPlate reserves a special place for dairy products, which are packed with fat and cholesterol and may increase the risk of health problems ranging from asthma to some types of cancer. There are many more healthful sources of calcium.

“But for taxpayers and members of Congress, the new plate has a special significance. There’s a stark contrast between the USDA’s plate and federal food subsidies. While the USDA’s plate encourages fruit and vegetable consumption and advises Americans to limit high-fat products like meat and cheese, federal agriculture subsidies do exactly the opposite: They spend billions of dollars promoting production of high-fat, high-calorie food products.

“Despite skyrocketing obesity and diabetes rates, more than 60 percent of agricultural subsidies in recent history have directly and indirectly supported meat and dairy production. In recent history, the federal government has spent about $16 billion a year on agricultural subsidies. Less than 1 percent has gone to fruits and vegetables.”

James H. Hodges, president of the American Meat Institute, in a prepared statement: “It is noteworthy that federal data show that consumers, on average, consume within the recommended range for the meat and beans group (now renamed protein) but under-consume fruits, vegetables and whole grains. The new plate makes sense given the consumption patterns noted in the Dietary Guidelines. The icon affirms the role that meat and poultry play in a healthy diet, while emphasizing under-consumed food groups. Given the nutrient density of meat and poultry, it requires less space on the plate to offer great nutrition. We think this plate affirms the role of meat and poultry in the diet and the ’nutrition punch’ that our products deliver. We think that consumers will relate well to the food groups represented in this manner.”

Jennifer LaRue Huget on The Checkup: “A huge improvement over the baffling MyPyramid icon that it replaces, MyPlate is as easy as pie to understand; its designers smartly saved the fine print about how to actually fill the wedge-shaped spots on the plate for the Web site, MyPlate, like the Food Pyramids before it, is meant to convey the key messages of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans in a simple, consumer-friendly fashion.”

Given the general rah-rah reaction for, I asked Nestle if she had any reservations about it.

“I have a nutritionist’s quibble,” she responded. “My quibble is calling that group ‘protein’ when grains and dairy foods also have protein and are very good sources of protein. And protein is so not an issue in American diets...But this is a minor quibble. It’s a nutritionist’s quibble. Mostly I think it’s really good.”

Do you think Americans will adopt the recommendations given our historic avoidance of fruits and vegetables?

“I think it’s going to take a big educational program. Plus, it’s going to take a change in agricultural policy. . . .The Department of Agriculture historically has considered fruits and vegetables to be specialty products. Yes, specialty products. They don’t get subsidized. They don’t get any special attention and bringing the Department of Agriculture into a situation where it starts [developing] policy behind the guidelines is going to take some doing. And believe me, they know it.”

Finally, the USDA has asked Americans to snap a picture of their “healthy” plates and post them on Twitter under the hashtag #MyPlate. The department even offered a few helpful examples at the news conference this morning, each made out of plastic. Mmm, who’s hungry?

This plate will surely help Americans change their eating habits. (Tim Carman/The Washington Post)