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.

Cookie Cutters

It’s interesting to me that the same government that has thus far permitted and/or encouraged pro-choice positions on such fundamentally moral issues as abortion and homosexual marriage seeks to deny choice in so many other areas. For example, there are pushes to seriously restrict gun ownership, there are efforts to muzzle the discussion of positions other than evolution in school textbooks and science courses and, yes, there is now a law prohibiting the sale of sugary treats and high calorie drinks in school cafeterias and vending machines.

The new guidelines were announced in June. The U.S. Department of Agriculture program is entitled “Smart Snacks in Schools” and will eliminate candy and sugary drinks from school vending machines and a la carte menus as soon as next year. In fact, to quote a report from the Dallas News, the new guidelines will establish “fat, calorie, sugar and sodium limits on almost everything sold during the school day, even outside of the cafeteria.” The executive director of the food and nutrition services for the Dallas school district said that while the changes will be difficult, they are “in the best interest of…students.” She went on to say that the new rules force schools to provide “healthier options.” The reality, though, is that that is not really true. See, “options” presupposes that the schools will offer healthy snack items as well as the more “traditional” snacks that the new guidelines ban. But when the “healthier options” are the only choices, they are not, in fact, “options.”

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack used similar language in his statement regarding the guidelines, saying, “Parents and schools work hard to give our youngsters the opportunity to grow up healthy and strong, and providing healthy options through school cafeterias, vending machines and snack bars will support their great efforts.” Again, though, Mr. Secretary, when choices are eliminated, “options” are not what remains.

An article in the New York Times reports, “When schools open in the fall of 2014, vending machines will have to be stocked with things like whole wheat crackers, granola bars and dried fruits, instead of M&Ms, Cheese Nips and gummy bears.” I am not opposed to having things like whole wheat crackers and granola bars in school vending machines; I think that is a great idea. I would wholeheartedly support the encouragement–perhaps even the requirement–that such options be made available (though I would prefer–and be much more likely to support–such requirements being made at the local level than coming down from on high). What riles me is both the “government knows best” attitude that is inherent in these new guidelines and the blatant inconsistency in the government’s position in this area as opposed to others.

The Times article also quotes Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. She said, “By teaching and modeling healthy eating habits to children in school, these rules will encourage better eating habits over a lifetime. They mean we aren’t teaching nutrition in the classroom and then undercutting what we’re teaching when kids eat in the cafeteria or buy food from the school vending machines.” I love her use of the word modeling, because that is a word I use often in emphasizing the responsibility that teachers have in working with students; particularly in a Christian school, there should not be a disconnect between what we say and what we do. But eliminating choice is not modeling anything other than the idea that the government needs to make this decision for schools, parents and students because they are not capable of making the right decisions on their own. And again, if we buy into the idea that we should create environments that force people to live according to what we believe is ideal, we will soon live in a country with little or no freedom. And do not forget–anytime there is a decision about what is best, someone has to be making that decision. Who do you really want deciding what is best for you or for your child? Michelle Obama? Tom Vilsack? The food services director at your child’s school? Or you, the parent?

The Times article reports, “Health advocates are taking the same approach to curb the consumption of fatty, sugary and salty foods that they did to reduce smoking: educating children in the hopes that they will grow up healthier and perhaps pass along healthy eating behavior to their parents.” Interesting comparison, because I do not recall anyone banning the sale of cigarettes in order to curtail smoking. Sure, cigarettes were not sold in schools, and there have been laws passed regarding when and how cigarettes can be marketed in order to ensure that they are not being advertised to children, but the sale of cigarettes has never been banned. If health advocates were truly taking the same approach then they would realize that (1) the change they are trying to effect takes time, and (2) it comes ultimately as a result of education and personal choice. Is cigarette use down in the United States? Yes. Is it down because anyone was prohibited from smoking? No.

“Ms. Wootan said she was pleased that the rules would prevent the sale of sugary sports drinks like Gatorade in high schools. The drinks have already been withdrawn from elementary and middle schools, but Ms. Wootan said teenagers mistakenly think such drinks are healthier than sodas,” the Times reports. Okay; assume her point is valid. Correcting this “mistaken thinking” should be accomplished through providing the facts and educating the teenagers who are mistaken, not by eliminating their choice. And the fact that the drinks have already been eliminated at the elementary and middle school levels but are popular among high schoolers serves only to demonstrate that the elimination of the choice does not ultimately inform or change behavior, since today’s high school students were, necessarily, yesterday’s elementary and middle school students. If banning such drinks from the lower schools accomplished the goal, the high schoolers would avoid these drinks even once they were available (which they don’t) and if they did that, the schools would stop selling them since they would sit unsold in the vending machines until they expired. Imagine that–a free market system at work!

All of this comes from the fact that the U.S. has a high rate of childhood obesity, and the powers that be feel that it is the rightful role and responsibility of the government to fix that. Given that the government seems incapable of fixing much more serious problems that are most definitely its bailiwick, I question this logic. But put that doubt aside. Is there an obesity epidemic in the U.S.? Based on the numbers I have seen, there is legitimate cause for concern. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, obesity has more than doubled in children and more than tripled in teenagers in the last thirty years. In 2010, more than one-third of children and teens were classified as overweight or obese.

But what causes obesity? The CDC reports, “Overweight and obesity are the result of ‘caloric imbalance’–too few calories expended for the amount of calories consumed—and are affected by various genetic, behavioral, and environmental factors.” And therein, my friends, lies the problem. Notice that the CDC does not say that obesity results from too many Snickers bars in school vending machines or too many Powerades being consumed by high school students. Rather, the problem comes when students are continually taking calories in and never burning them. So the problem is not what the students are eating nearly so much as it is what they are doing–or, perhaps more accurately, not doing. When students spend their free time sitting around texting, surfing the Internet and playing video games they are not burning many calories. A much better solution to the problem would be to get students to be more active. Should they eat healthy? Sure. But banning cookies from the cafeteria is not going to accomplish that by itself.

The school where I serve is not subject to all of the federal guidelines for school lunches because we are a non-public school and we do not take any government funding. We have vending machines that sell sodas and sports drinks. Our cafeteria serves healthy meals but it also serves dessert. We have water fountains and we have a salad bar. In other words, we actually offer choices. And students in our cafeteria can even–brace yourself–have seconds if they want! But guess what? Though I have never measured it, I think I can safely state that the rate of students who are overweight or obese at our school is far lower than the national norm.

You know what that means, right? Yep… Eliminating choices won’t solve the problem.