With the federal budget finally being passed in November, public health did not fare well, despite the rhetoric that prevention is the key to reducing chronic conditions. But why should it when it does not fare well at the state level?
Funds derived from the master tobacco settlement were to go to public health programs for reducing tobacco use, increasing physical activity and encouraging better eating habits — the settlement funds were to help states recover medical and societal costs of tobacco users, particularly Medicaid-like programs — but legislatures nationally just spent it willy-nilly, with North Carolina proving to be no exception.
What I found more interesting is that Congress again did not address the issue of the value of potatoes and ketchup in a positive manner as it relates to school meals. Efforts were made to reduce potatoes (actually starchy foods) to two servings per week (per a recommendation of the Institute of Medicine). Instead potatoes are not limited at all. Of course, all these complex sugars (starches) eventually become glucose and are no better than simple sugars. To further muddy the water, in 2004 a federal judge ruled that batter-coated french fries were a fresh vegetable. You wonder what age he was.
The old “is ketchup a vegetable?” argument again raised its head. Thirty years ago, President Reagan’s proposed budget equated to a $1 billion cut to the school lunch program — at the same time the White House purchased $209,000 of new china (this was pre-yard sale and flea market days) — and the USDA was required to come up with a plan to implement it. One of the expressions coined at that time was “plate waste,” which referenced lima beans and associates that languished on the plate until discarded. It was felt that by changing definitions of a credit from actual volume to a single-strength reconstituted basis, one could get more credit.
For instance, one tablespoon of tomato paste could be counted as 1/4-cup single-strength tomato juice (instead of one tablespoon credit previously). Thus ketchup would be counted as a vegetable. No less authority than Republican Sen. John Heinz (whose family owns Heinz ketchup and whose widow wound-up marrying John Kerry) stated: “Ketchup is a condiment. This is one of the most ridiculous regulations I ever heard of, and I suppose, I need not add that I know something about ketchup and relish — or did.” So the logic was do you have the kids eat less expensive ketchup or not eat the more expensive vegetables. Costs won out. In the 1990s, President Clinton did add salsa as a vegetable but properly prepared salsa certainly has a lot more vegetable-like qualities.
So moving from 1981 to 2011 and with all the data known about obesity rates, surely a stance would be taken. Indeed it was: Congress passed a bill that bans the USDA from changing its nutritional guidelines for school lunches. Unfortunately, industry lobbying ruled another day. So until the kids get as big and round as ticks, let us ensure that they get as many french fries with a generous side of ketchup as they want. It must be good for them, or so Congress thinks.
— Bill Smith is director of the Robeson County Health Department.