jasonbwatson

January 4, 2016

The 800-pound gorilla

At the end of November WORLD published an article that includes lots of contributors. Marvin and Susan Olasky got the byline, but the piece included contributions from Katlyn Babyak, Onize Ohikere, Abby Reese, Jae Wasson and Evan Wilt. The article took up six full pages of the November 28 issue and was also the inspiration for the cover, featuring a plump Uncle Sam in an apron offering broccoli to a young man who seemed less than thrilled. The cover headline was “Fat Chance: What Happens When Washington Says ‘Eat Your Vegetables?'” The article title was “Fat of the Land: How a healthy idea became a bloated bureaucracy.” What was all this about then? About the obesity epidemic in America in general, about the child obesity rate particularly and about Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign and resulting overhaul of federal guidelines for student lunches.

The article highlighted some unique programs around the country that teach children how to eat healthy, that teach children to grow vegetables, that help overweight children (and adults) shed pounds and more. Some of the programs are impressive, while others sound almost too good to be true. After all, I struggle to imagine any environment in which a bunch of young elementary school students actually enjoy (or even actually eat) a lunch of steamed edamame, beef and brown rice pilaf, and oranges. At least half of the article though was devoted to Mrs. Obama’s crusade. The article touted good things she has done, including her willingness to do whatever necessary to promote healthy eating and exercise. She has, the article states, “danced and push-upped her way across television talk shows. She charmed kids by making a video in which she boogied with a turnip. She donned gardening gloves and tilled the White House kitchen garden.” All of those things are indeed impressive. Given that Mrs. Obama is the youngest First Lady the U.S. has had since Jacqueline Kennedy, it has been encouraging to see her engage in activities other First Ladies could not have done. (For the record, Hillary Clinton was only 83 days older than Michelle Obama when her tenure as First Lady began, but I do not think I am alone when I say that I cannot really imagine Mrs. Clinton doing anything mentioned above for public view).

The article does a good job of also highlighting the downside to Mrs. Obama’s crusade, including the resulting public school lunches that most students do not enjoy or even eat, the bureaucratic growth stimulated by so many new federal guidelines ans recommendations and the government overreach that comes when the government institutes a goal of average fruit consumption among students reaching 100% of the recommended level by 2030. Of course, trying to find ways to reach unobtainable goals calls for some creativity and guideline restructuring, such as the USDA’s decision in July to allow vegetables in smoothies to count toward the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act’s mandate a 150% increase in fruits and vegetables in school meals. Somehow I suspect I am not the first one to think of the ballyhooed inclusion of ketchup as a vegetable in the 1980s (even though pickle relish is what was actually recommended, not ketchup). Another part of the problem, of course, is the waste that results when students are served foods they won’t eat. I do not disagree that children need to be fed healthy foods and that they need to learn to eat and enjoy them in order to have a balanced diet, but I question the wisdom of making that the responsibility of the government.

That leads to the 800-pound gorilla in the title, which is alluded to in the article’s conclusion and is the real inspiration for this post. After referencing the many studies that attempt to diagnose why there are so many obese individuals in the United States the article states the following: “[A]mong the outpouring of papers and studies on why some adults and even some kids weigh more than 300 pounds, no one seems to be scrutinizing the 800-pound gorilla in the room: fewer families with married moms and dads in the home, and more families with mothers who come home from full-time work exhausted. Few things are more politically incorrect than to speculate on the connection between family and fat, yet until we do that we’re driving blind.” This is crucial–and I extend kudos to Olasky, et. al. for addressing it in their article. Of course there are plenty of two-parent families that do not eat well, but single-parent and two-working-parent families are more likely to eat processed, packaged and unhealthy foods I would bet. I dare say, too, that two-parent families with children whose schedules are slammed with school, practice, rehearsal, club and whatever-else, constantly scurrying from one activity to another, are more likely than children with well-balanced schedules to eat unbalanced meals.

To his credit, Mike Huckabee has raised the issue (healthy eating and its connectedness to many of the other problems and potential problems facing our country) in both his current presidential campaign and his unsuccessful 2008 run. Few journalists seem to take notice, few debate moderators seem to care and few other politicians seem to have any interest in the subject. That’s fine, I suppose, because there are myriad other important issues for presidential candidates to address and, as I mentioned above, solving this problem is not the bailiwick of the federal government. What is important though, and the point that Olasky is making, is that there are many ramifications and repercussions to family disintegration that we do not think about when we get used to no-fault divorces, single-parent families and other iterations of the family that vary from the way family was intended to function. Likewise important, and the point that Huckabee is making, is that when we do not consume a healthy diet, it is more than our waistlines that suffer. The law of unintended consequences is alive and well and we can find prime examples of it every day if we just look around. As we enter the thick of campaign season this is good to keep in mind as we listen to the promises and claims of those vying to get our votes.

It is also, of course, a great reminder that it would behoove us all to eat a good meal tonight–a home-cooked one, ideally without any processed food and with the entire family sitting around the table.

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