Let's Have a Food Fight!

May 31, 2006

In her NYTimes essay, “Well-Intentioned Food Police May Create Havoc With Children’s Diets,” Harriet Brown goes way, way overboard in trying to prove her main point, which is some homespun common sense about kids being allowed to eat all things in moderation.

She sloppily grabs at about a million different issues related to the childhood obesity and diabetes epidemic, which she doubts is real in the first place. Then she cherry-picks studies that prove her contention, to the exclusion of a swelling body of research on health and nutrition. I could battle her bullshit line by line, but life’s too short and I need to sleep.

Suffice it to say that these issues go way beyond whether Junior has a jiggly middle. Good nutrition in the form of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and other high-quality, unprocessed food is good for health and good for learning, no matter what you look like or what your genetic code is. They are taking pop machines out of schools for the skinny kids, too, whose ability to concentrate and learn is just as compromised by skipping meals and living on Coke.

She’s basically urging us to throw the baby out with the bathwater: if some of these food initiatives are ill-advised, then they all must be. I agree with Brown that report cards that include a child’s Body Mass Index, or any program that calls out children’s individual weight or body type is flat-out counter-productive. But I’m all for setting a higher bar for the nutritional value of the foods fed children in lunchrooms. Lunchroom food is pretty much the bottom of the barrel in terms of food quality and nutritional value. Remember when ketchup was classified as a vegetable serving during the Reagan Administration?

Brown grinches:

Leading the way is the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act now before Congress, calling for updated definitions of “minimal nutritional value” of foods served in schools, including those sold in vending machines and at fund-raisers.

In theory, such legislation would improve the nutritional options. In reality, it sounds like another call for the food police — highly fraught and bound to backfire.

Food police? I hate that she’s framing this as a fight and insisting that any attempt to raise food standards is bound to backfire. And that we should just bury our head in the sand instead of learning more about the foods we eat and how they affect our health.

What worries me even more than the words being thrown about in the food wars are the unspoken messages we’re giving our children about their bodies, themselves and the food they eat. Prohibiting that second slice of pizza sends a message that pizza is bad, that there are good foods and bad foods, safe foods and dangerous foods — a perceived dichotomy that every anorexic is all too familiar with.

This quote is representative of the whole piece and why it makes me crazy: a really solid premise is completely entangled with bad information. The part about unspoken messages and sensitivity to body image is spot on. But guess what? There are bad and dangerous ingredients, like trans fats, that can lead to pretty serious health problems. Why must information like that be considered dangerous? It’s as if the worst possible thing is for a child to feel deprived (i.e. of junkfood at school), and we must avoid that at all costs, because it’s so much worse than a child developing health, behavior, or learning issues due to nutritional bankruptcy.

Mmmm….pizza. I wish I had a piece draped across my laptop about now.