I happened to be in our nation’s capital on Halloween last week (everyone there was costumed as a Republican Presidential candidate–or maybe everyone walking the streets there IS a Republican Presidential candidate). I had a bit of extra time that afternoon and a sign for a new exhibit at the National Archives caught my attention so I went to check it out. For a former political science major like me, the National Archives is like the Sirens to Odysseus, so I was looking forward to cruising by and revisiting the Constitution anyway–it’s getting harder and harder to see it in action in everyday life.
Anyway, the new exhibit (open now through January 2012) is called “What’s Cooking Uncle Sam? The Government’s Effect on the American Diet.” What a timely topic, I figured, in light of all that is going on in healthcare and health policy lately. The exhibit’s own marketing brochure says the exhibit is intended to highlight the US Government’s “extraordinary efforts, successes, and failures to change our eating habits.”
The exhibit traced America’s food policy initiatives from the 1800s through today. The big overarching themes were around the active stance the government has taken to promote food diversification, convenience, supply, and especially food safety and health. Notably, back as far as 1890, the USDA’s lead scientist, W.O. Atwater, was saying America was adopting a crappy unhealthful diet. Atwater, largely responsible for popularizing and publicizing the concept of counting food calories (damn you Atwater!), was quoted as saying, “the evils of overeating may not be felt at once, but sooner or later they are sure to appear–perhaps in an excessive amount of fatty tissue, perhaps in general debility, perhaps in actual disease.” Amazing to see how far we’ve come on this issue, which is damned near nowhere.
In fact, I was struck by a sense of backwards deja vu as I walked past posters promoting 100 calorie snacks (granted, for prunes, bacon and candy as well as tomatoes and apples) very like the 100 calorie snack packs you can now get at the grocery store or when flying the marginally friendly skies (usually 100 calorie packs of Wheat Thins-I guess prune packs aren’t so popular at 30,000 feet). The exhibit also featured numerous posters promoting the health benefits of vitamins, eating more fish, eating less sugar, etc, all dated from 1910-1930. You see similar promotional ideas today, although they are stuffed into your paycheck envelope or delivered in the dulcet New York tones of Dr.Oz instead of hanging on posters.
Actually, my favorite poster was for one of the early forms of the food pyramid. Back in the 1930s, when this version came out, it was shaped more like a donut and butter was one of the 7 categories. Gotta love it.
One notable comment in the exhibit was that the only effective method the government found of meaningfully promoting healthful eating habits in the first half of the 20th Century was the forced rationing of meat and other products during the War, when the worst offending foods became hard to get and vegetables were plentiful. With a few concurrent wars now in process, you would think Americans would be verging on mass vegetarianism, but not so much.
There was a large area of the exhibit dedicated to the advent and progression of the US Government-funded school lunch program, including a study of the failed 1981 attempt to classify ketchup as a vegetable when the program started to become a financial burden to the government and schools. In a bizarre case of life imitates art, I opened the NY Times not 48 hours after seeing the exhibit to find an article entitled “Schools Lunch Proposals Set Off a Dispute”. The article describes the government’s current attempts to improve the healthfulness of school lunches in the face of a rising obesity crisis among kids. Ready for it? The primary issues in this debate are the government’s attempt to declassify tomato paste as a vegetable and their additional attempts to replace French fries and other potatoes with fresh fruits, spinach and broccoli. Guess who is spending millions lobbying against that plan. If you said Coca Cola Corp, Del Monte and the National Potato Council, you would be right (question: is Mr. Potato Head a corporate shill?). The biggest arguments against the healthful changes are that the healthier foods cost too much/taxpayers can’t afford to pay for them and, my personal favorite, kids won’t eat broccoli and spinach because they dont like them. Seriously? How lame.
On the cost front, I can assure you and Mr. Potato Head that the cost to taxpayers of raising unhealthy kids with a long future of chronic disease is a hell of a lot more expensive than buying some broccoli. There has emerged a widespread consensus, supported by cold hard facts, that the burden of chronic illness caused by a lifetime of poor eating choices is breaking our national economy. About 75% of all healthcare costs go to treat chronic illnesses like heart disease, diabetes and hypertension, all of which are highly correlated with poor diets. And the costs of those treatments amount to somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.8 trillion dollars per year now. That would buy enough broccoli to fill the Grand Canyon, even if you went for broke and bought organic.
And on the issue of taste, I’m sure kids would eat broccoli if they were taught young to like it instead of being shielded from it like it were kryptonite. This whole debate reminds me of my favorite stupid kid joke: what’s the difference between broccoli and a booger? Kids won’t eat the broccoli. But I digress.
At the end of the NY Times article outlining the debate between federal nutrition advocates and the food lobby, Margo Wootan, director of Nutrition Policy for the Center in the Public Interest, says, “It’s about our children’s health. I think that point has long since been lost.” And that’s a damned shame, since it is estimated that 1/3 of the children born today will develop Type 2 diabetes in their lifetime.
As I read this article and reflected on the food exhibit at the National Archives, I could not help but be distracted by the clanging of my irony meter. For all of the money and effort the federal government is currently investing in improving food policy and pushing broccoli on kids like the Medellin Cartel pushes cocaine, some other government guys are working overtime to undo their efforts. Our government spent about $16.9 Billion between 1995 and 2010 on federal subsidies that went to producers of corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, corn starch and soy oils, which are basically the arch enemies of good food policy. CALPIRG, a California-based public advocacy group, released a report in September 2011 that noted that these federal subsidies amount to the cost of 19 Twinkies for every man, woman and child in the US every year. The report further noted that during that same 15 year time period, the government spent only $262 million (with an M, not a B) to subsidize apples, the ONLY significant federal subsidy of fresh fruits or vegetables. Sorry broccoli, no cash for you!
Earlier this year California Assemblyman William Monning introduced a bill in California to tax drinks sweetened with sugar or corn syrup at $.01 per ounce to raise funds for consumer physical education and child obesity programs intended to teach kids how to eat and live healthier. Monning’s so-called Soda Tax caused an uproar in the State. The bill was ultimately squished like a bug, brought down by the food lobby which said,”The government doesn’t have the right to social engineer” when it comes to food policy.
Coming from that National Archives exhibit, I’m going to have to call bullshit on that particular bit of commentary. The government has been “socially engineering” food policy since before anyone coined the phrase “social engineering”. In fact, the whole idea of food subsidies is, in itself, a bit of social engineering, no?
I learned in my visit to “What’s Cooking Uncle Sam” that there used to be a group within the USDA called the Poison Squad which was comprised of 12 guys whose job it was–I swear I’m not making this up–to eat increasingly larger and larger amounts of foods believed to have potentially toxic additives until they found out how much made people sick. Their mission was to protect the public from food supplements such as borax and sulfuric acid, which at one time were used as preservatives. Food labeling did not become mandatory until 1965. In 1902 the Poison Squad started eating their hearts out while keeping their fingers crossed to ensure that other Americans didn’t eat things that might kill them. As a result, many additives were banned, including those that routinely caused bottled and canned foods to explode, offering, I suppose, a back-up plan for killing consumers if the food itself didn’t kill them.
So I have an idea. Maybe instead of passing a tax on soda or, better yet, on all kinds of junk food (like we have done for cigarettes), we should just ask the CEOs of the companies pushing the most unhealthful foods to be the newly appointed members of a reconstituted modern-day Poison Squad so they can act on their alleged desire to operate in the public interest. We can sit them down and force feed them larger and larger quantities of their own junk food, washed down by oceans of corn syrupy soda, until they find out how much it will take to kill them and their customers. It will be like one big federally-sponsored Nathan’s hot dog eating contest, except the prize will be not dying. The good news for them is that, given the toxic qualities of some of their “food” offerings, it probably won’t take too long to figure out how long that will take. Or maybe they would just rather pony up that penny an ounce if they don’t want to put their money-making products where their mouth is. As one LA Times editorial commenting on the demise of the soda tax noted, “A soda tax won’t solve the obesity epidemic. Sin taxes in general are not going to make the problem go away. But they’re a good place to start.”