The concept of healthier school diets is not new. The National School Lunch Program was launched way back in 1946. The program is operating in more than 100,000 public and non-profit private schools and residential child care institutions. It provides nutritionally balanced low-cost and free lunches to more than 31 million children each school day. No more than 30 percent of a meal’s calories come from fat and less than 10 percent from saturated fat. School lunches provide one-third of the “recommended dietary allowances of protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, calcium, and calories.” Specific food choices—at least for the moment– are made by local school authorities. The program has been extended to summer and after-school health snacks in some areas. Children in families with incomes at or below 130 percent of poverty level are eligible for free meals. In 2010, that’s $28,665 for a family of four.
Even federal initiatives specifically to fight obesity are nothing new. In 2004, Pinellas County, Florida, was one of 22 counties across the country which got $35.7 million from the Health and Human Services Department to battle obesity. In Dan Marino’s restaurant in St. Petersburg, FL., kids were offered an expanded choice of healthy foods. “Now 40 percent of our customers orders are for healthier kids fare,” the chef, Thomas Costello, said at the time.
President Obama’s decision to put his wife in charge of the battle against childhood obesity is reminiscent of Bill Clinton’s decision to let his wife, Hillary, run the 1993 effort to create national health-care reform. Each greatly enlarged the political persona of both women. But in both cases, neither woman was an expert in the field they were chosen to direct. After months of pushing the health initiative in secret meetings, Hillary appeared at one large gathering of experts in Washington that did allow news media coverage. (Because I covered the meeting as a Washington correspondent, I recall that Mrs. Clinton in her questions and comments revealed her lack of knowledge of critical elements of the health field).
Mrs. Obama has said that the obesity “epidemic” impacts the nation’s security, as obesity is now “one of the most common disqualifiers for military service.” According to a military study it is true that many young men are disqualified for health reasons, including obesity. But many more are turned down for being undereducated or because of criminal records. Many recruiters have worked with overweight applicants to help them trim down to acceptable weight.
“I’m for a free-market solution to obesity,” says Hank Cardello, CEO of 27 Degrees North, a consulting firm that aids food companies link profit and social responsibility. If you have a 10 percent tax on soft drinks, you lower consumption, but “we aren’t solving the obesity issue,” according to research, he said. He suggested giving a bonus or tax credit if a food company reduces calories, not eliminating a tax deduction for advertising, as promoted by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio). “All food has to be perfect all the time” is a draconian stance. “Food ought to be fun.” The attitude that food is “either 100 percent good or it’s poison is extreme.”
Government dictates (such as cutting desserts, substituting water for soft drinks, exercising 60 minutes each day) as called for by Mrs. Obama may be effective deterrents to obesity; but they surely intrude on personal liberty and parental responsibility.
While obesity is widespread and potentially dangerous for America’s children, what huge federal program exists to spotlight leukemia, which kills 44 U.S. children every week; or cystic fibrosis, a most common incurable genetic disorder (one in every 3,000 Caucasian American babies have cystic fibrosis); or Duchenne muscular dystrophy, fatal for kids; or Down syndrome (one in every 800 births in the U.S.) with its intellectual disabilities, heart defects and gastrointestinal malfunctions? No grandiose government programs are in place for these unfortunate children.
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