Let's make a move, Mrs. Obama
Why pizza sauce and gym class can't solve our big fat problem.
Thursday, January 5, 2012 - 12:02
BIG FAT PROBLEM: Food corporations and agribusiness may exacerbate America's childhood obesity epidemic by favoring low-quality school meals. (Photo: Isaiah12:2/Flickr)
In the midst of our historic battle against childhood obesity, Washington wishes for us to find solace in pizza sauce and gym class. There is only one remotely logical explanation as to why Generation Z's fragile health has taken the backseat in recent politics: Big Food strikes yet again.
First Lady Michelle Obama was our canary in the coal mine when she announced recently that her Let's Move campaign would shift toward a greater focus on exercise as opposed to dietary reform. Translation: the Obamas don't wish to be on Big Food's bad side during an election year.
Congress caved as well in November by blocking USDA proposed rules for nutritional reforms to the National School Lunch Program. These rules would have introduced more fresh fruits and vegetables to school meals while enforcing stricter guidelines for counting certain foods as "vegetable servings." The rules would have also halved the amount of sodium in school meals.
In the absence of these proposed reforms, federal guidelines still count conventional cafeteria pizza as a "vegetable serving" because of its tomato sauce (since when are tomatoes even vegetables?). French fries still count as a "vegetable serving" because they're made from potatoes.
If starchy pizzas and French fries are equal to fresh broccoli in the eyes of Congress, it's easy to see how profoundly Big Food lobbyists can distort our national health policies beyond any resemblance of sound science.
In sync with this warped veggie rhetoric, the First Lady explained at a summit in November that rather than "forcing [children] to eat their vegetables, it's getting them to go out there and have fun."
Wouldn't it be nice if things were that simple?
The real issue
Sure, it's difficult and expensive to make children eat their vegetables. What's more, I believe every child has the right and the need to enjoy foods like pizza and French fries in moderation. The real issue, however, is the lack of choice schoolchildren face in low-income areas with limited access to healthy food. When school meals represent the bulk of a child's caloric intake, that child's diet largely consists of subsidized agricultural waste products the federal government notoriously disposes of through the National School Lunch Program. In other words, school meals in many districts are based around highly processed grains, factory farm meat and selected canned vegetables.
A variety of food choices is crucial to proper nutrition. And for millions of U.S. children, a lack of choice is presenting life-threatening consequences.
One in three US children are obese. One in three. What’s more, 30 million children rely on free or subsidized school breakfasts and lunches for their food security. Is it fair, then, that these children could face chronic, long-term health conditions — all because the federal government is afraid to challenge food corporations and outdated farm policies?
During the recent veggie debate, companies like ConAgra, Del Monte Foods and Schwan claimed that adding more produce to school cafeterias would make meals "too expensive" for families. In fact, the cost of these meals would have risen by a mere 14 cents. The real incentive to challenging the USDA was protecting corporate profits on highly processed school foods made from subsidized grains and low-quality meats.
Then there's agribusiness. To conceptualize how agricultural special interest groups affect our access to healthy food, just consider the breakdown of federal farm subsidies. Of the $246 billion in subsidies given to farmers between 1996 and 2009, a mere 1 percent of this money went toward growing fruits and vegetables. Where did the rest of that obscenely large sum go? A whopping 63 percent supported grains grown solely for livestock feed. Approximately 20 percent supported grain for human food, and about 15 percent went to crops that became either sugar, starch, oil or alcohol.
What has to happen
We cannot combat childhood obesity without changing how children eat at school. We cannot change how children eat at school unless the National School Lunch Program introduces more fresh produce and limits highly processed food on cafeteria menus. Such menu reforms can't occur unless the government regulates ingredients in processed foods, curbs the sale of competitive foods, and alters the distribution of farm subsidies.
When the Let's Move campaign launched in 2010, the First Lady made these sorts of food reforms a primary focus. Improving access to healthy food and increasing the amount of healthy food in schools were both major pillars of her initiative. Now, fear of rubbing agribusiness and food corporations the wrong way will likely cripple Let's Move before it can even make a move.
Please, Mrs. Obama — don't shy away from food reform. Combating the childhood obesity epidemic will take much more than "getting them to go out there and have fun" during gym class. It will also take more than Congress mandating more tomato sauce on cafeteria pizzas to make them better "veggie" servings (yes, they actually tried that). Childhood obesity is one of this generation's greatest crises, and we desperately need politicians who aren't afraid to address its systemic causes.
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