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The Doctor is in.

Soooo-ho-ho, President Barack Obama is in Australia at the moment (in Canberra, in fact, where the physical manifestation of Dr Then resides) and while the cat’s away, let’s see what the mice are playing at back in the US.

This latest from Congress: a joint House-Senate panel has ruled that a slice of pizza constitutes a vegetable. What the hey? And huh?

Here’s the background: the US Department of Agriculture is responsible for setting rules about what can go in subsidised school meals – the meals that poorer children get for free or heavily subsidised cost at school canteens. And one of those rules is that the meals should meet government dietary recommendations. You remember the food pyramid with its food groups? (NB people, as of this year, it’s not a pyramid any more – it’s a plate, with a name and all: ‘MyPlate’. As opposed to the old ‘MyPyramid’. Who comes up with these? And how creatively stunted are they?? But triangle or circle, it’s the same idea – an icon that encapsulates dietary advice.) Any school lunch that the government pays for has to meet the dietary recommendations that MyPlate illustrates.

Now the USDA is more precise than just telling schools to make lunches that work with the MyPlate picture. The department tells schools how many cups of different food groups and should go into meals. Up until recently, the USDA has only specified amounts of fruit, cereals, meat, and milk that have to go into school lunches but now the department has started to set amounts of vegetables as well.

Here is where the fun begins: what constitutes a ‘vegetable’?

This is where pizza comes in.

The USDA would like to set a rule that one slice of pizza containing about two tablespoons of pizza sauce (ingredients: mainly water, with tomato paste, flavours, thickener (415), and vegetable oil) does NOT constitute a serving of vegetables. The American Frozen Food Institute – an industry lobby group for producers of such things as frozen pizza – disagrees. And has successfully persuaded congress-men and -women on the House Appropriations Committee to stop the USDA making the pizza-is-not-a-vegetable ruling.

The Appropriations Committee’s reasoning (or at the least its Republican members’) was that the rule would impose too harsh regulations on schools,  increase costs of the school lunch program, ‘tell children what to eat’ (apparently a Bad Thing), and limit school districts’ ‘flexibility’ in ‘improving nutritional quality’. (Huh? How’d they get that last one?)

It, of course, sounds considerably more like the Committee is unwilling to do anything that would possibly lessen food producers’ markets or, ironically, ask producers to make healthier food. And, since the Democrats have a party policy to act against childhood obesity (publicised by Michelle Obama’s ‘Let’s Move’ activities), this move against improving school lunch nutritional levels is also the Republicans biffing the Democrats. Good times.

Sigh. Dr Then shakes her head.

This would not be the first time that American officialdom, influenced by manufacturers, has decided that children’s health was less important than adults’ money. (This latest is, however, particularly egregious because the school lunch program is directed at the poorest of American children, and they have the worse nutrition and the highest rates of childhood obesity.) Here’s just a little timeline of how child health gets a pretty raw deal:

1978-1979 “Kid-Vid” Hearings by the Federal Trade Commission

Following an application by children’s rights groups, the FTC held hearings into whether advertising on television to children, especially of foods like candy, fast food, and sugared cereals, should be restricted for health reasons. Under pressure from advertising agencies and food producers, Congress voted to end the FTC’s investigation. Even more, Congress then changed the FTC’s mandate so that it was no longer allowed to decide whether any advertising to children was ‘unfair’ or not. (Before it ended its investigation, the FTC had reviewed research into children and advertising. This research had shown that children were unable to understand that ads were trying to persuade them to buy something.  Children either didn’t know that the ads were not part of the program or else understood them as simply giving them handy information as to what was out there. Since children are developmentally unable to understand advertisements’ persuasive intent, the implication would be that ANY advertising to children would be inherently unfair, let alone the sophistication of Madison Avenue’s messages of eat-this-food-and-you’ll-be-popular or buy-this-candy-and-have-heaps-of-fun!) So the FTC can’t rule on whether advertising to children is unfair, and food producers and fast food restaurants are allowed generous access to advertise to children.

2001 Lorrilard Tobacco v. Reilly case 

Massachusetts passed a law prohibiting outdoor advertisements for smoking within 1000 feet of schools and children’s playgrounds to try to reduce child smoking. Tobacco companies, supported by the ACLU, argued that this law infringed companies’ first amendment right to advertise. (Yup, apparently it’s in there. “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech..” Right there. See it? Companies’ right to advertise cigarettes to children.) The Supreme Court (Republican dominated) concurred and overturned the statute.

So, you see, there has been a historical tendency in the US to sacrifice children’s health in favor of making money (and often, irony of ironies, making money from children themselves.) I know – harsh words, hey? But what a country of contradictions! Family values are highly esteemed by both major political parties, but industry lobbying gussied up with the banner of the first amendment often gets the better deal.

The Appropriations Committee’s report is now going to go to Congress for the final decision. So come on Congress! Be bold on childhood obesity and improving children’s health! Sure, history doesn’t bode well for you doing the right thing on this one, but make a break with the past! I’m pretty sure we can all get together on the idea that pizza is not a vegetable.

Till next time, stay well,

Dr Then


Interested in more? Further reading:

Nestle M. 2002, Food Politics, Berkeley: University of California Press.

 ‘Congress pushes back on healthier food lunches’, www.businessweek.com/ap/financialnews/D9R18F800.htm, 15 November 2011
Summary: Fiscal Year 2010 Appropriations “Mini-Bus” http://appropriations.house.gov/UploadedFiles/11.14.11_Minibus_-_Detailed_Summary.pdf, 14 November 2011
Dawes, L. (Hopefully forthcoming), Husky John and Chubby Jane: A Century of Childhood Obesity in America