Big Sugar

05.28.14

Republicans for More Fat Kids

Is it really cost that’s driving the House GOP to fight Michelle Obama on school lunches? Of course not—it’s the culture wars, the sugar lobby, and plain old hatred of her husband.

Some days you have to wonder where the Republicans would draw the “if Obama’s for it, we’re against it” line. I can’t think of a single instance these past five years when Barack Obama endorsed something and Republicans said, “Hey, that’s actually a good idea!” The comic nadir, you’ll remember, was when Obama was for lower taxes (of the payroll variety), and they even contrived a way to be against that, at least for a while.

So it should not come as a surprise to us that now Republicans want more fat kids. And the reason Republicans want more fat kids is straightforward and predictable: Michelle Obama wants fewer of them. And that’s all they need to know. If she’s fer it, they’re agin’ it.

I’m talking of course about the school lunch program food fight going on now between the first lady and the GOP House. At Mrs. Obama’s behest, the school lunch program was overhauled in 2010 to include more fresh fruits and vegetables, fewer overall calories, somewhat smaller portions, and other goals, all in an effort to do something about the childhood obesity epidemic, in which the percentage of young children (6-11) who are obese has nearly tripled in the last 30 years and the percentage of adolescents (12-19) has more than quadrupled.

I remember thinking, back in the early days of the administration, when Mrs. Obama had those kids planting kale in the White House vegetable garden and step-classing with her to beat the band, that this was no anodyne first lady project. It was obvious at the time to anyone who grasped the basic logical connections that if she was really serious about American health, she was going to run like a locomotive right into some of the most powerful corporate interests in America—the handful of huge food conglomerates that stock most of what sits on our grocery shelves, and more specifically the ultra-powerful sugar lobby. This ain’t adult literacy. This is power politics, I knew, and push would eventually and inevitably come to shove.

She also, perhaps unwittingly, brought herself face-to-scowling-face with the clique of Americans who not only hate her husband (and by extension her) but who think “liberty” means that they must be able to eat and drink anything they damn well please. I say “perhaps unwittingly” because there was probably no way for her to know back in late 2008 and early 2009 that a simple effort to get kids to exercise and eat greens would become not a point of trans-ideological commonality but yet another ideological ground zero, or that the Big Gulp would become part of the culture wars. But sure enough, there was (who else?) Sarah Palin, sipping from one at her 2013 CPAC speech, and sugar became something that real conservatives embraced.

And so here we are, with House Republicans, led by some Alabamian (improvement: at least he’s not a Texan) named Robert Aderholt, who denies climate change, too, by the by, on the cusp of passing legislation that would let districts that want to opt out of the new school lunch standards.

If the Republicans take over the Senate, watch for a watering-down or defunding of the whole business.

The stated reason is that the new standards have created added expense—fresh fruits and vegetables cost more than canned ones—and some districts have been losing money. That, I readily allow, is true. You can read this GAO report (.pdf) to get up to speed on some of the problems school districts have encountered in implementing the new standards. As rollouts go, the new school lunch program hasn’t been great—better than Obamacare, certainly, and Windows Vista and iOS7 (reminders that the private sector screws these things up, too), but certainly a little top-heavy and inflexible on the rule-making side.

But many districts also swear by the new rules, as was evidenced Tuesday by the administrators who appeared with Mrs. Obama at the White House to defend them. And the Department of Agriculture, which runs school lunches, has already made some changes the GAO report recommended. So it seems they’re trying to get it right. And remember, please remember: The new program comes after many years of school cafeterias across the country farming out their lunch operations to McDonald’s and the like, thus ensuring that kids were gorging themselves every day on some of the worst sewage you can put in a human body. So the new effort is a sea change for the better.

If there are kinks, iron them out, of course. But that isn’t really the Republicans’ game. Their proposal is relatively mild only because they know nothing harsher would see the light of day in the Senate. But if they take over the Senate, watch for a watering-down or defunding of the whole business.

But what about the science, you say? Yes. It’s irrefutable. Sugar makes people fatter and, in all likelihood, dumber. But what does that matter to Republicans? I mean, hey; more fat and dumb kids just means more future Republican voters.