Food for thought: Don’t lose your lunch

Negative health effects from certain foods raise regulatory concerns, but how far will such regulation go?

Julian Switala

Few decisions are more personal than what we choose to put into our own bodies. Food is a prime example of this. More than mere fuel, food has the potential to satisfy cravings, deliver a sublime sensory experience and bring people together.

Despite our relative gastronomical freedom, the U.S. federal government continues to barrage us with information dictating what we should eat. It passes unnecessary legislation which is extremely misguided and wasteful.

Due to the recent rise in childhood obesity, First Lady Michelle Obama has declared total warfare on adolescent muffin tops across the country. Of course, childhood obesity isnâÄôt a laughing matter, as it increases risks for cardiovascular disease, bone and joint problems, sleep apnea and Type 2 diabetes.

Most Americans agree with Obama, believing that the government should tackle obesity. A Pew Research Center study from March found that 57 percent of Americans favor the governmentâÄôs role in reducing childhood obesity. The percentage of supporters becomes more striking when viewed politically. A vast 80 percent of liberal Democrats favor these initiatives, a far cry from the 64 percent of Tea Partiers and the 57 percent of Republicans who disagree.

Now I understand that Obama can probably attract more attention than most private enterprises, but thereâÄôs a difference between speaking out about an issue one is passionate about and enacting legislation that affects all U.S. citizens.

Last December, President Barack Obama signed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 into law. Not only does the bill reauthorize funding for child nutrition, it also allocates an additional $4.5 billion toward the implementation of more stringent nutritional standards in public schools nationwide.

I may not be a dietician, but at least I know one thing: A healthy school lunch does not a healthy child make. A child may not be eating Twix from the school vending machines, but what about ReeseâÄôs for breakfast at home?

And even when students are being served a perfectly portioned and nutritional meal full of in-season asparagus, free-range turkey burgers and organic heirloom tomatoes, nothingâÄôs stopping them from simply throwing it out and bringing some ReeseâÄôs for lunch.

That is, unless you attend Little Village Academy in Chicago, where more draconian rules restrain the benign freedom of children eating food. Principal Elsa Carmono hasnâÄôt permitted students to bring lunches from home for the past six years without a medical excuse. Otherwise, they must choose between starving throughout the school day or sucking it up and eating the cafeteria grub.

In a shameless display of paternalistic dogmatism, CarmonaâÄôs well-intentioned utopia is unintelligently designed to protect students from unhealthy food choices. This imposition of choice is ignorance at its best. Not only is it a massive infringement of parental responsibility and trust, but such a policy also costs parents more money. And what if a parent wants to pack a healthier lunch than the school serves?

When students at the school were asked what theyâÄôd bring for lunch if they could, answers included Subway sandwiches, juice, bananas and grapes. Second-grader Julian Ruiz said, “Sometimes I would bring the healthy stuff, but sometimes I would bring Lunchables.” And in all honesty, if parents are fine with their child drinking Coke at school, nothing is stopping that child from drinking a 12 pack on their own time throughout the week. And what about during the summer? Where will our nutrition fairy lunch ladies be then?

But letâÄôs assume a child is actually eating well due to the aid of federally approved school lunches. None of this ensures that a child will be sufficient physically. It doesnâÄôt help that gym classes are being cut nationwide to save money and achieve test scores mandated by the government. A little more than half of all students nationwide are enrolled in a physical education class. By high school, only a third are enrolled in daily gym class. Sadly, students arenâÄôt making up for this loss outside of school. More than 60 percent of kids ages 9 to 13 arenâÄôt physically active during non-school hours.

Now I can understand the opposing argument from negative externalities: Obesity increases the toll on our health care system. The U.S. spends $150 billion each year treating obesity-related illnesses, but those illnesses are, for the most part, entirely curable through self-discipline, and itâÄôll be scientists and citizensâÄô healthy habits that cure obesity-related diseases, not wasteful government programs.

Here at the University of Minnesota, researchers in the Mashek Laboratory in the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences are trying to better understand the role fatty acids have in metabolic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and fatty liver, a disease that affects one in three Americans.

Obesity isnâÄôt something that should be taken lightly. The side effects to both the individual and society are hefty and shouldnâÄôt be ignored. However, this is no reason to legislate away our delicious freedoms. If a child wants to eat devilishly delicious Hostess snack cakes, the only people with a legitimate say are her parents or, even better, the child herself. I donâÄôt know if I can stomach anymore overprotective policies, but I do know that when these government policies go belly up, IâÄôll be busy enjoying my freedom fries.


Julian Switala welcomes comments at [email protected].