Thursday, January 19, 2012

Selling Out Again

“I’m buying today!” announced my youngest son when he stumbled down the stairs for breakfast. Buying, as in buying that salt-laden, sugar-laden, fat-laden, excuse-for-food school lunch. No veggies to be seen. Oh, excuse me, I forgot! There will be French fries – that counts doesn’t it? According to our Congress, who take their marching orders from the processed food industry’s powerful lobbyists, pizza sauce counts too. Sorry, climbing on my soap box much too early today, but it can’t be helped. 

I’ve been stewing on this news since last November when the USDA backed down from their assertion that school lunches contain vegetables. Actually they didn’t back down so much as sell out by reclassifying French fries and pizza sauce as “vegetables” much the same way they declared ketchup a vegetable during the Reagan years. It garnered a few comments from sarcastic columnists and cartoonists, but for the most part, everyone sort of chuckled and let it drop. That’s the problem with this country! It seems we really don’t care. Or maybe we care, but we’re just too busy to do anything about it. Or we don’t know how to do anything about it. Or we think nothing we do will change anything.

That’s what the food manufacturers and lobbyists who fought Congress on the USDA standards count on. How dare we insist that food for our children be healthy?? School meals are subsidized by the federal government, so the government has the final say on what is or isn’t on your child’s lunch tray. This means the government has the power to make the options healthier. Only they don’t. Because they are beholden to multi-million dollar businesses that fund their campaigns. And we aren't nearly as vocal.

The schools, for their part, don’t put up much of a fight. How can they? Bottom line: It costs much more to feed children healthy food. Their budgets are beyond tight as it is. When they are making decisions between baby lettuce and classroom size, they make the only choice there is. Why do we put them in this position?

And when you really get down to it, what kids will eat those vegetables anyway? No actual kid will enjoy soggy, salt-laden green beans or stinky lima beans or canned asparagus. I don't actually know what veggies the kids are turning their noses up these days, but those are the ones I threw out in my own school years. Odds are the menu hasn't changed all that much. Why is that? I'm sure the congressional lunchroom serves up some very nice healthy food. In fact, I know the government is capable of offering healthy food because my husband and sons had a nice, reasonably priced, somewhat nutritious (at least better than the average school cafeteria) lunch at the Supreme Court Building while touring DC.

How is it that our congress can lament the cost of childhood obesity and yet, do nothing to fight it? The first line of defense is the cost of healthy food. It’s within their power to subsidize broccoli instead of corn, spinach instead of soybeans. If our government really wanted to change the way our nation eats, they could do it. They already did it once. That’s how we got in this predicament in the first place.

Back in the 70’s, in the name of feeding our country cheaply, the government convinced farmers to forego diversified crops and plant only corn and soybeans. In the end, instead of meeting a need, we have a surplus. So what do you do with a surplus? You find ways to use it. Enter High FructoseCorn Syrup. The rest is history. And we all know this. So does the government. So why does it continue? That’s my question.

Is it because they don’t care? Is it because they’re too busy doing other things? They don’t know how to fix this? Is it because they are powerless to make this change (and lose all those campaign contributions)?

I have an idea. I think they do nothing about it because they think it’s too hard. It would be incredibly difficult to re-train farmers, re-educate the general public, and re-tool the food industry. And that would probably cost a little money. Yes it would. But it’s not impossible.

It’s human nature to avoid the hard stuff. It’s the same reason my kids don’t vacuum anywhere but the center of their rooms. It’s too hard to deal with the rest of the mess. It’s the same reason we don’t demand that our government enable our schools to feed our kids healthy food. It would take a lot of work to make that happen.

Here’s my great fear – we’re going to let our aversion to hard work and difficult tasks turn us in to selfish people. We need to do something. But where do we begin?  We can start by asking questions – of our school boards, of our elected representatives, of the USDA. We can contact organizations that are already actively campaigning for change, like Food Democracy Now , Slow Food USA, Healthy School Lunches, and The Lunch Box. There are plenty of other organizations out there too who need your support to bring change.

Here’s some inspiration to make you reach for the phone or the keyboard from two of my favorite guys -

“Start by doing what's necessary, then what's possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” 
–St. Francis of Assisi

Rarely do we find men who willingly engage in hard, solid thinking. There is an almost universal quest for easy answers and half-baked solutions. Nothing pains some people more than having to think.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

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