Common sense and the great American food fight

When I was a little girl, my dad was constantly telling me to use my common sense.  There were a few such refrains in our house growing up, and to this day, my siblings and I can have a good belly laugh over Dad’s constant counsel to trust that the truth would set us free, to practice anticipatory thinking, and to use our common sense. Well, that counsel may be good for a laugh over Thanksgiving dinner, but it’s also pretty good advice – which, in the era of politicized fights over school lunches, seems in extremely short supply.

For instance, when I read about industry reaction to USDA proposals to strip pizza sauce of its status as a lunchtime vegetable (the proposals “go too far too quickly” and may result in foods that aren’t as palatable, say the industry titans who have our children’s’ lunchtime menus firmly in their grasp,) all I can do is say, “Enough, already. It’s time to get back to common sense.”

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I have taken my share of statistics and epidemiology classes, so of course I agree with the argument that correlation is not the same as causation. In moving to protect children’s health based on conventional wisdom, we need to ensure that we are, in fact, doing the right thing.  But given the dire nature of obesity prevalence, there is something to be said for making decisions based on the best available evidence, and not necessarily gold standard randomized control trials.  And I’m not minimizing the perennial and very real issue of cost, and the difficult decision of whether we are willing to invest in making healthier food accessible to children in the school setting.

The reality is that we’re living in a world where industry profits often trump the health of kids, and too many of us – for whatever reason – seem to be okay with that.

Still, it’s a little hard to take when lunchroom-reform skeptics insist we should keep vending machines full of sugar-sweetened beverages in schools because, after all, we don’t really know that they are responsible for the obesity epidemic.  And don’t get me started on arguments about the holy potato. “Don’t even think of rocking the potato boat,” I imagine the USDA-skeptics saying.  Don’t we know that potatoes provide fiber and potassium?  I bet we couldn’t think of one other food in the universe that might be healthier for kids that could provide such an abundance of scarce nutrients.  In fact, why don’t we just serve kids a potato sprinkled with potatoes and served with a side of potatoes?  At least we know they’ll eat it, right?

I know I can be naïve about these things – it’s not easy to change longstanding traditions without ruffling feathers, and some birds (say the fast food, drink and processed food industries) have really well-paid lobbyists. But have the rest of us just lost that moral compass that tugs at us when we let our priorities get out of whack?  Because that’s what’s happening here. People can talk about personal food freedoms all they want, but the reality is that we’re living in a world where industry profits often trump the health of kids, and too many of us – for whatever reason – seem to be okay with that. I know I’m on a soap-box and that I may, perhaps, ruffle a few feathers of my own.  But the common sense offenses of late have been truly extraordinary, and I finally just had to ask. “Really?”