19 May 2011

Unhealthful News 139 - USDA does something for the people rather than business. People complain.

A couple of days ago, the US Department of Agriculture announced that it was going to minimize how often potatoes could be used to fill the vegetable slot in federally subsidized school lunches and breakfasts.  (It was widely reported as removing potatoes entirely, but they actually can still be used occasionally.)  This is really a great victory at many levels, and yet most commentators are just complaining about it, and the press is doing nothing to help the situation.

As I wrote in Unhealthful News a couple of months ago, the potato has long been a nutritional problem in the US.  Though this is not the case in other places, like the UK, in the US potatoes are officially in the vegetable niche, the part of the "food pyramid" that is most crucial to have for good nutrition.  But they are really more like eating bread or, depending on how it is prepared, drinking oil.  We can enjoy them (I certainly do), but should not mistake them for vegetables.  The simplest way to think of the problem is that if potatoes fill the vegetable slot in a school breakfast or lunch, then there effectively is no vegetable.  Thus, if there is to be a goal/requirement of having vegetables in school meals, not allowing the substitution of potatoes makes perfect sense.  Indeed, it is a mistake that potatoes were ever in that category.

The new USDA rule would actually limit not just potatoes but "starchy vegetables" in general, like corn (a grain, not a vegetable in the nutritional sense), peas (more like beans), and lima beans (the name says it) to a total of one cup per week for lunch.  It sure would have been nice if at least one reporter among those deemed qualified to report this story, was aware or was able to look up (wikipedia works) the fact that the sweet potato is a completely different plant from the potato, both taxonomically and nutritionally.  Instead they tended to report the fact that sweet potatoes were not being removed as if it were some kind of exception to the new rule.

In their attempt to argue against the new proposed policy, the best the Maine potato advocates could come up with is that a potato has more vitamin C as a head of iceberg lettuce.  You know when the best praise you can come up with is "better than iceberg lettuce; well, by one measure anyway", then you are really running on fumes.  They might as well tell us how much better potatoes are than eating cardboard packaging.  Indeed, their other main argument was that schools can put out baked potato bars and the kids might skip the sour cream, cheese, and bacon will load them up with broccoli, which is good for you.  Really quite like cardboard packaging.

One anti-regulation advocacy group picked up on the "all foods have some redeeming value" theme that was popular in the advocacy and argued that the potato contains "potassium, vitamin C, fiber, B vitamins, Thiamin, Niacin, Riboflavin, Folate, B6, fiber, and a full complement of eight essential amino acids".  Well, yeah, the same is true for pretty much everything – you just would not have to eat quite as many pounds of other foods to get enough of those nutrients.  (For those who might not know, the five items on the list following "B vitamins" are padding B vitamins; I copied and pasted: fiber is listed twice in the original; and a quick calculation suggests you would need to eat about five kilos to get a "full complement" of amino acids – at least that would cover the perhaps two kilos it would take to provide the RDA of those B vitamins.)  Ironically, this group is best known for protesting that trace amounts of toxic chemicals should not evoke worry because quantities matter. 

Before this effort, the best the USDA ever did to try to discourage people from choosing potatoes as their vegetables was the silly "eat a variety of colors" advice (the subject of my previous post).  This was a desperate attempt by the USDA to say "don't just eat potatoes (and bananas) and think that you are eating nutritious vegetables (and fruits)", but without mentioning potatoes.  The reason such machinations are needed is that the USDA serves primarily to help agribusiness and food manufacturers, and so their role in giving nutrition advice is highly compromised by conflict of interest.  They cannot be negative about anything.  They have a policy of saying that there are no bad foods in moderation, which is obviously absurd unless "bad" is interpreted to mean "poisonous".  Yet they have managed to brainwash the less thoughtful (i.e., the vast majority) of those giving nutrition advice in the US into believing that claim.

So, though you would not know it from any news story I saw, this was a huge victory for the people, to have USDA choosing nutrition over business.  Or it will be a huge victory, that is, if it survives the attacks.  Because potato agribusiness is already striking back, aided by the legislators they own.  And little support is coming from the people.  Much of the latter is to be blamed on the way the press covered this, providing no useful nutritional information and trying to make it controversial.  For once, the health reporters did not just defer to the US government's claims; naturally, they would pick a time when they would have done better if they had.

Instead of supporting this departure from government for the powerful, a lot of people picked up on the press's attempt to make this a controversy and complained as if it were some kind of big government intrusion into individual choice, like limiting what a restaurant can sell.  Some of the press outcry ("Big Government" and"I don't think that's what the federal government should be doing" – from a Congressman) struck me as quite similar to the "Keep the government out of my Medicare!" joke, which sadly is not entirely a joke.  Subsidized school lunches are not entirely a federal government program, like Medicare, but they are still substantially a government program and so the government needs to make rules.  (I would assume that the same people would be crying "no accountability!" instead of "keep government out!" if there were no rules.)  As with Medicare, rules exist, rules must exist, and whatever rules exist can likely be improved upon in some way.  School cafeterias being funded by this program do not have freedom now.  They cannot choose to serve no fruits and vegetables, for example.  Nor can they fill those slots with whatever the kids might want, say Skittles or Jello (the fact that many Americans consider this concoction of rendered animal bits and sugar to be a fruit makes the potato look pretty good by comparison, I have to admit).

This is not in any way an intrusion on personal liberty.  Each day's lunch has a finite number of choices, and replacing one with another is not a restriction on people, only on the vendors providing the lunches.  People can still buy potato-based foods outside of school lunches; kids can bring them to school; it might even be that potatoes will still exist in the lunch line as a bread or optional junk food option.  If you listen to some of the politicians and pundits, you would think that this was a ban on dessert or the arbitrary removal of kale from the vegetable category because the Obamas do not care for it, or perhaps a mandate that all the vegetables be organic.  Or you would think that this is the only limit imposed on the vegetable category, or the only one that might make the kids less happy ("mmm, the vegetable today is Skittles au gratin").

It is difficult to figure out any legitimate objection to this adjustment in an necessary set of rules.  I understand that the potato growers object, but should we really be taking our cues from them?  If someone proposed adding brown rice to the vegetable category, I suspect that would provoke an outcry too.  People hate it when government enforces rules, but they hate it even more when the government changes the rules that it already has.

I guess the lessons here are:
  • The press really could have solved this problem by explaining the science side, doing their job reporting the relevant facts rather than following the lazy or anti-Obama script and spinning it as an intrusion and a political fight.
  • Libertarians should perhaps be careful about choosing their battles.  This is not a restriction on free choice, and is no more an unreasonable restriction on liberty than is not including Jello on the list of allowable vegetables in subsidized school lunches.
  • Whether we like it or not, government sometimes has to pick winners.  We really should celebrate when it does it based on people's well-being rather than special interests' profits.
  • Because of a lack of science and misplaced concerns about liberty, the special interests still might win and kids might still have the opportunity to avoid healthy food.

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