The congressional war on childhood nutrition

House Republicans keep pushing pizza and fries even in the midst of an obesity crisis

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 18, 2011 8:00PM (EST)

           (<a href=''>B.G. Smith</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(B.G. Smith via Shutterstock)

School lunch sucks. But now, it's not just for age-old punch lines about mystery meat and grumpy ladies in hairnets. No, it sucks because on Thursday, the House of Representatives passed a bill that blocked proposals to improve its nutritional quality. Among other things, the changes would have required schools to offer a larger variety of fruits and vegetables, limited the amount of French fries cafeterias can serve, and stripped any pizza containing just two tablespoons of tomato paste of its current status as a vegetable. In related news, up is down, day is night, "Arrested Development" was never canceled, and I am a natural redhead.

The move is a blow to the Obama administration, which passed the Child Nutrition Act in 2010 to improve school food and permit more children to qualify for free meals. Michelle Obama has made childhood obesity the driving cause of her tenure as first lady, with a Let's Move! initiative to encourage physical fitness and healthy eating.

It's an apt – and desperately timely – cause. Nearly 12.5 million American children are obese. It's no coincidence that one in five children live in poverty -- a rate that has been climbing steadily since 2000. Faster and cheaper is now a public health crisis, and it's setting our children up for a lifetime of ills ranging from heart disease to diabetes and beyond. And with the economy in shambles, providing healthy food at home is harder and harder for more families. My younger daughter's own school recently lost its Wellness in the Schools program, which just two years ago had been working to reduce institutionalized, bland fare and bring fresh, inviting lunches into the cafeteria. It's back to frozen pizza and chicken nuggets that are only partially made of  chicken.

But the news isn't grim for everybody. Steve Christensen, former deputy director of the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service under George W. Bush, told the Wall Street Journal this week that "The program was designed to feed hungry children, not as some sort of federal weight-loss program." Jeez, isn't it enough to feed them? You want us to give them real food? And the American Frozen Food Institute – which lobbied against reform on behalf of companies like ConAgra Foods and McDonald's supplier J.R. Simplot -- was similarly cheered by the House's move. Spokesman Corey Henry called the decision Thursday "an important victory" for his industry -- a declaration that prompted both Henry F. Potter and Montgomery Burns to announce, "That dude is a massive tool."

"Our concern," Henry continued, "is that the standards would force companies in many respects to change their products in a way that would make them unpalatable to students." Imagine! Changing things! Good thing you dodged that bullet there, ConAgra. Because if there's one thing a corporation that just bought a pretzel company understands, it's what's best for our children. Certainly not nutritional reform.

The debate over school lunch -- and the ludicrous semantics of it -- is not a new one. Thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan famously attempted to screw over a generation of youths by reclassifying condiments such as ketchup and pickles as vegetables. He was so excoriated for it he reversed his position soon after. So just to be clear – even Ronald Reagan would have caved on this BS.

Our government was created to serve its people – even those not of voting age. But while one in four American children will go hungry today, Congress seems more concerned about the companies that make fries for McDonald's.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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