Friday, November 18, 2011

I know it's Friday, but...

I kind of want to get serious for a minute.  I know, I usually don't do this on Fridays but something that I saw in the news recently has me rather upset.  No, it's not the Sandusky/Penn State thing.  I am definitely disgusted by that whole sick affair and I might get around to sharing my opinions on that fiasco when I can think about it for more than 30 seconds without wanting to punch somebody.  No, it's not Cain's latest idiotic gaff, he's doing a good enough job of hanging himself that he doesn't need any rope from me.  (No, that wasn't a racist statement, so put away your cards, conservatives)  What's got me bent today and motivating me to post something serious on a day when I usually post random crap and jokey junk to lead into the weekend is the recent decision by the house GOP to abandon the president's work to try and improve the nutritional quality of federally-funded school lunches.

In 2010, president Obama signed a bill that set improved nutritional standards for school lunches.  The move was aimed at reducing childhood obesity, juvenile onset diabetes and other health issues that arise from kids starting off a lifetime of bad eating habits at an early age.  Among the measures in this 2010 law was a mandated reduction in the amount of white potatoes that could be served to kids per week and a requirement that there had to be at least a half-cup of tomato paste in pizza sauce before it could be considered a vegetable serving.  The law also mandated reductions in the amount of starchy vegetables - like corn, peas and lima beans - that could be served per week.

Why does this matter?  Well, bad eating habits begin during childhood for one thing.  Thinking about my own issues with unhealthy eating, it's pretty much something I did my entire life.  Of course, when I was a kid, school lunches had stricter nutritional standards.  We typically only had pizza for lunch once or twice a month, they usually alternated Friday lunches with hamburgers.  Likewise, french fries were served sparingly.  Even instant mashed potatoes weren't a common lunch side.  On any given day, we might have had a single starchy side, so if we got potatoes or corn, we rarely got a bread roll, that type of thing.  Today, pizza and french fries are the two most commonly served lunch menu items in the country.  Starting kids off with the flawed idea that eating pizza counts as having a proper serving of vegetables and that french fries are as good as broccoli is incredibly irresponsible and it directly leads to creating a foundation of bad nutritional habits that will stay with most kids their entire lives.  America has been dealing with a childhood obesity crisis for decades and the more that the frozen and processed food lobbyists sway our lawmakers, the worse the problem has gotten.

President Obama's 2010 law to change nutritional standards was important because it mandated that serving kids a slice of pizza alone wasn't adequate to supply a daily requirement of vegetables, that giving kids french fries 5 days a week didn't make up for not serving them carrots or other healthy vegetables and that the best way to get kids to adopt healthy eating habits for life is to begin when they're young and still forming their opinions about things like proper nutrition.

Now, this fight by the food industry to justify bad nutrition by pretending it's good is nothing new.  The unhealthy influence of food lobbyists goes back as far as adding milk and dairy products to the old four basic food groups charts from when I was a kid.  There has never been a nutritional benefit to eating cheese, drinking milk or putting butter on your food that outweighed the high fat and calories of those items and all the positive nutrition from dairy products can be found in other, healthier sources than cow's milk.  However, due to the influence of the dairy industry, milk and dairy products were ranked right along with fruits and vegetables in terms of importance to a healthy diet, the same was true for bread and cereals.  However, as the food industry has continued to grow into a larger industry of increasingly fewer competing corporations, controlling a larger share of the total market and wielding more power and influence over our government, standards have declined steadily.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that the chief opponent to Obama's nutrition law, who's influence directly resulted in it's abandonment by the house GOP was the frozen food and potato processing lobbies.  The countries largest manufacturers of frozen pizzas and french fries successfully convinced congress to allow them to continue spreading the outright lie that 2 tablespoons of pizza sauce equals a full serving of vegetables and that eating a cup of french fries every day is good for you.  In their statement on the decision of congress, the American Frozen Food Institute (an important sounding name for the people who lobby for kids to keep eating junk) called this "an important victory" for them.  They then went on to say "Our concern is that the standards would force companies in many respects to change their products in a way that would make them unpalatable to students."

In other words:  If we have to make food that's actually healthy, then kids might not like the taste and rather than teaching kids to get used to the taste of healthy foods - like they're supposed to do - we'd rather just keep making really yummy crap for them to eat.

I mean, really?  It's this kind of screwed-up logic that has the dairy industry flooding schools with flavored milks now instead of even normal whole milk.  "Oh, we can't make kids drink regular milk, they don't like it!"  Maybe I'm showing my age, but when I was a kid it didn't matter if we "liked" it or not, we had two choices for our meals - take it or leave it.  It's all a poor excuse to justify feeding kids cheap, low-grade "food" that barely meets minimum nutritional guidelines - and when it gets so bad that it actually fails to meet those guidelines... just spend a little money to buy off congress to lower those guidelines.

High schools today have fast food restaurants in them.  They have soda vending machines around every corner.  There is big money being spent by the frozen and processed food and drink industry to push their products on kids early, so they develop a lifelong habit of eating junk food.  It's like the happy meal at McDonald's - positive reinforcement from the earliest age so that you associate bad food with good feelings.  There is no difference, in my mind, between encouraging kids to drink cokes and eat fast food when they're in grade school and giving them candy cigarettes and bubblegum cigars and putting tobacco ads all over sports events.  Both are designed to get children hooked on a dangerous and addictive habit that will significantly reduce their health and possibly their lifespan just so some big corporations can get even bigger.

Yes, I fully admit that I'm more passionate about this issue than I would have been six months ago, but I also fully admit that the reason for that is because I'm finally trying to reverse a lifetime of bad eating habits that began when I was a kid.  Ever since I was a child, junk food was a treat and healthy foods were almost like punishment.  I had to get through my pile of green beans if I wanted dessert and I always looked forward to taco night, pizza night and anytime we had to go into the city to go shopping because that meant a trip to McDonald's.  At school, Friday's always meant pizza or hamburgers, as I mentioned before.  The kids with perfect attendance or some other scholastic achievement got to have chocolate milk instead of regular milk.  Sugary, salty and fatty foods and drinks were a reward, they were better and more special than normal meals.

America has a massive obesity problem, no pun intended.  It's beginning with our children and decisions like this, to condone and justify feeding kids food that is knowingly bad for them just to make the already insanely wealthy food industry even wealthier is at the very heart of the problem.  We're raising generations of kids who are being fed junk food and who will grow into overweight adults who are addicted to sugary, salty and fatty foods, hooked on sodas and repulsed by fresh fruits and vegetables.  The consequences of this are obvious and abundant - an epidemic rate of juvenile and type 2 diabetes, skyrocketing health care costs as a result of treating health issues related to obesity and a marked overall decline in the quality of life for millions of overweight people.  Prejudice against fat people is one of the last acceptable forms of discrimination and we're really doing our country a disservice by actively promoting the very lifestyle choices that lead to that obesity and resulting prejudice.

So yeah, I'm really bothered that, once again, Republican lawmakers are siding with the big corporations over what's actually best for the well-being of the people.  Unfortunately, kids can't vote so who cares if they get diabetes, get fat, get teased for being fat, get tooth decay or other health issues and grow up into morbidly obese adults?  Just as long as their food budget is going into the hands of the "right" corporations...

Oh, and don't even get me started on what they're taking away from kids in the classrooms these days.  I'll have to save that whole bitch session for later.

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