Congress Prefers to Help Processed Food Industry Than to Help Children Improve Their Nutrition

There was more in the news this week than Republican candidates’ self-destruction by means of mouth opening and the idle speculation on what will happen to the Occupy movement now that local governments across the country have decided to clear the parks instead of waiting for the snow.

Buried in the back pages is the news that Congress has halted efforts of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to improve the nutritional quality of school lunches by refusing to fund the changes.

The USDA had proposed to take a few small steps to make school lunches-and by implication the children who eat them-healthier: Limit the use of potatoes, halve the amount of sodium, provide more whole grains, raise the amount of tomato paste considered a serving of vegetables. This last proposal would have made it impossible to count the tomato paste on a slice or two of pizza as a vegetable.

The USDA plans were based on 2009 recommendations by the Institute of Medicine. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said they were necessary to reduce childhood obesity and future health care costs.

There can be no doubt that childhood obesity and unhealthy eating are both a health and an economic problem. At last count, about 17% of children (and 34% of adults) are considered to be obese. Obesity has been linked to a large number of debilitating ailments, including heart disease, diabetes and (probably) some kinds of cancer. The more people who have these diseases, the higher the cost of healthcare for everyone. Eating more fruits and vegetables helps to lower the amount of calories people consume, because they are full of fiber and water. Fruits and vegetables also contain nutrients like anti-oxidants that have been shown to help lower cholesterol and fight cancer.

Improving the nutrition of school lunches will help make healthier children in two ways: 1) They’ll eat more nutritious food; 2) They’ll see the lessons they learn about nutrition and health in their classes applied in the real world.

Why did Congress decide to ignore this grave heath challenge?

We all know the answer: The pressure of large companies. To quote the New York Times: “Food companies including ConAgra, Coca-Cola, Del Monte Foods and makers of frozen pizza like Schwan argued that the proposed rules would raise the cost of meals and require food that many children would throw away.”

Saying that many children would throw away the lunches is just silly. Children have always thrown away or traded all or parts of their lunches. And children have always frowned at trying new foods or foods prepared in an unfamiliar way, then tried them and liked (or tolerated) them.

The cost argument is profoundly obnoxious. The USDA proposal would have added 14 cents to the average cost of each lunch meal. 14 lousy pennies. The total cost over 5 years for these improvements is $6.8 billion, which computes to about $9.28 in additional taxes per year per federal individual and corporate tax filer (although we have to keep in mind that the additional amount might be paid in state taxes, so it might be slightly less or more). If Congress decided to fund these improvements by raising taxes only for individuals and families making $200,000 per year or more, it would increase the taxes of these upper middle class and rich people by about $309 per year. Congress could also cut one quarter of one percent from the Defense Department budget to fund healthier school lunches. In other words, in the grand scheme of things, the cost increase proposed by the USDA was trivial.

No, the major corporations that lobbied against the proposed new rules for school lunches do not care about either costs or waste. And they evidently don’t care about the future of our children. They care about one thing and one thing only: keeping the money rolling in.

That Congress should succumb to their pressure shows once again that our elected officials care more about the interests of a narrow group of corporations and wealthy individuals than about the rest of the country. And it truly is befuddling: It’s not as if the proposed changes would have taken money from food producers, merely shifted it from those producing some kinds of foods to those producing other kinds of food.

Congress is always making (and has always made) decisions that favor one industrial sector over another. Congress routinely prefers the interests of oil companies to those of companies involved in solar, wind and other alternative energy. It routinely favors automobile manufacturers over mass transit equipment manufacturers. And over the past 30 years, its tax policies have consistently favored the wealthiest Americans over everyone else. In each case, different policies would have had a negligible effect on the economy, merely shifting money from the hands of corporations whose products, services and actions were having a pernicious effect on the country to those whose products, services and actions could help to make us healthier, address global warming, clean the environment or lead to the more equitable distribution of wealth we see in Japan, Canada and most of Europe.

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