March 9 2011
Bigger Ambitions Lurk in the White House Vegetable Garden
The media is swooning: Republican Governors Mike Huckabee and Chris Christie recently defended First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign. The New Jersey Star Ledger editorial board praised Governor Christie for chivalrously coming to the first lady's defense. Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page applauded them for deciding to "stand up for sanity," suggesting, of course, that those critical of the first lady are insane. The New York Times also offered praise adding the first lady "has not called for government mandates on this issue."
Yet it is the media and those defending the Let's Move! campaign that are out-of-touch with reality. While Governors Huckabee and Christie suggest the first lady is simply using her high profile position to encourage people to eat well and exercise, it's clear that the White House is willing to go much further than using the bully pulpit to achieve its lofty goal of "solving the problem of obesity within a generation.
"The campaign's task force offered ten pages of "recommendations," which revealed its intent to micromanage the food industry and expand government in the name of fighting obesity.Here's a sample:
•Recommendation 2.2: The FDA and USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service should collaborate with the food and beverage industry to develop and implement a standard system of nutrition labeling for the front of packages.
•Recommendation 2.3: Restaurants and vending machine operators subject to the new requirement in the Affordable Care Act should be encouraged to begin displaying calorie counts as soon as possible.
•Recommendation 2.4: Restaurants should consider their portion sizes, improve children's menus, and make healthy options the default choice whenever possible.
•Recommendation 2.6: All Media and entertainment companies should limit the licensing of their popular characters to food and beverage products that are healthy and consistent with science-based nutrition standards.
•Recommendation 2.7: The food and beverage industry and the media and entertainment industry should jointly adopt meaningful, uniform nutrition standards for marketing food and beverages to children, as well as a uniform standard for what constitutes marketing to children.
•Recommendation 2.8: Industry should provide technology to help consumers distinguish between advertisements for healthy and unhealthy foods and to limit their children's exposure to unhealthy food advertisements.
Yes, this report suggests what industries "should" do, but it is just another small step to change those "shoulds" into "musts," if Washington bureaucrats decide industry isn't moving fast enough to implement their suggestions.
And the Let's Move! campaign already has legislative victories. One is expanding the school lunch and breakfast program-a poorly run, inefficient federal effort that is, at the very least, in part to blame for children's increased weights. This program once served only the poorest children, but today over 30 million children receive a school lunch.
The Let's Move! campaign claims credit for a provision in the ObamaCare legislation requiring employers to provide women breastfeeding break times and a private space for pumping milk. That's an onerous regulation that creates substantial costs for many businesses employing women.
Another provision of ObamaCare forces restaurants and vending machine operators with 20 or more locations (read: fast food) to provide visible calorie information to their patrons-despite overwhelming evidence that labels and calorie information do little to sway choices.
ObamaCare also requires all new health insurance plans to cover screenings for obesity and counseling on sustained weight loss, without charging any out of pocket cost for patients. The goal is to ensure doctors are assessing children's body mass index at all check-ups by 2012. And to add to the Orwellian creepiness of this requirement, a Domestic Policy Council report brags that the Department of Health and Human Services will be collecting this BMI data.
One can sympathize with Governors Huckabee and Christie who want to say something nice about the Let's Move! campaign and the first lady. They want to showcase their bipartisanship, concern for small children, and they know that the media will celebrate them for their "reasonableness."
After all, this issue is about food and nutrition, a subject about which most Americans are ambivalent. As the Washington Post's Dana Milbank put it: "For the first time in her adult life, Michelle Obama is really proud of her cauliflower. She's also proud of her carrots, her chard, her collards, her cabbage, her chamomile, chervil and kohlrabi -- and everything else in her White House garden." Many Americans and ambitious politicians may be happy to let the first lady work in her garden dreaming of skinny children everywhere, and applaud her efforts as harmless. Yet the public needs to realize that her efforts go much further than offering helpful advice and innocent dreams of a healthier public.
Regulatory nightmares lurk behind those lovely rows of garden vegetables.