Nutrition Politics

Abortion. Immigration. Taxation. In the United States, one national policy issue after another has tumbled into the quagmire of political polarization.

But nutrition? One would hope that rational minds at the opposing ends of the political spectrum could achieve a “meeting of the minds” about public school lunch programs. Alas, during the past two weeks, that issue exploded into rancorous political debate as well.

The argument began on May 1st, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a Press Release on its official government web site entitled Ag Secretary Perdue Moves To Make School Meals Great Again. Its indirect reference to Donald Trump’s political campaign slogan was sure to catch the attention of his political opponents.

And what did the Press Release announce? The federal government has decided to return certain school lunch ingredient decisions to local control. Some schools, for instance, may no longer need to serve all grain products in whole-grain form. Others may now be permitted to let low-sodium meals meet a less stringent sodium target. And all schools will soon be allowed to serve 1% flavored milk (gasp!) as an alternative to fat-free milk.

That drew the ire of former First Lady Michelle Obama, who appeared with her colleague Sam Kass at the annual summit of Partnership for a Healthier America. Ms. Obama’s response?

She pointedly questioned “… why someone is okay with your kids eating crap.” And Mr. Kass added that “… we’ve already seen (the Department of Agriculture) try to ensure there’s tons of salt …” in school meals.

Feeding children crap? With tons of salt? That’s a bit extreme, isn’t it? And yet the Release did include a few choice comments that undoubtedly provoked the ire of the political opposition.

For example, Perdue criticized the Obama-era regulations by claiming that “… kids aren’t eating the food, and it’s ending up in the trash …” He continued:

“A perfect example is in the south, where the schools want to serve grits. But the whole grain variety has little black flakes in it, and the kids won’t eat it. The school is compliant with the whole grain requirements, but no one is eating the grits.”

Perhaps it’s true that public school students throughout the South are rising up in rebellion because of little (albeit healthy) black flakes in their grits. On other other hand, perhaps Perdue is simply telling a folksy fictional anecdote. It’s impossible to tell from the Press Release, which provides no supporting information.

So where do we stand? Apparently, official nutrition regulations that make minor transitions from no-fat milk to 1% milk, and from whole-grain foods to not-quite whole-grain foods, are now being released to the public with folksy tales under sloganeering headlines. And opponents are now leaping to engage in battle by accusing government officials of feeding children “crap.”

Such discourse cannot possibly produce intelligent nutrition policy, can it? But in a world of rabid nutrition politics, it’s the only dish that is being served to us.