Food, Obesity, and Regulation: Simmering Culture War Boils Over

VIDEo: Yale University analyzes the nutrition of kids meals at fast food chains.
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It's the holiday season – a time for gastronomic, even gluttonous indulgence. Between the candy canes and the candied yams lies a world of caloric intake.

But the onslaught of calories is also fueling something else: the simmering culture war over food. President Obama signed into law the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 on Monday, marking the largest investment in child nutrition programs since their inception.

The bill sets standards for food served in school cafeterias, vending machines and stores, among other things. Then there's the Food Safety Bill passed by the Senate last month and headed further consideration this week. The bill greatly strengthens the Food and Drug Administration and is intended to keep unsafe foods, such as the recent spate of salmonella-tainted eggs, from reaching markets and restaurants.

Republican lawmakers and other right-wing voices have loudly criticized both laws, saying they interfere with freedom of choice and reflect the liberal elite's crackdown on good old American food. Sarah Palin said interference in public schools is part of a "nanny state run amok." Glenn Beck said the Food Safety Bill was a plot to promote vegetarianism by making beef more expensive, and warned watchers of his show: "This is about control, and in the end starvation."

For laws aimed specifically at childhood obesity, corporations chimed in on the debate, with McDonald's voicing complaint over a measure passed in San Francisco banning the sale of a toy with a meal unless the food meets certain nutrition standards. McDonald's CEO Jim Skinner took aim at the law and the growing number of organizations blaming his chain for contributing to obesity in the U.S; he told the Financial Times that the rule "really takes personal choice away from families who are more than capable of making their own decisions."

On the ongoing soda tax debate, Muhtar Kent, CEO of the Coca-Cola Company, took to the Wall Street Journal's opinion pages to argue that "Coke Didn't Make America Fat." Kent said that expanding waistlines are a result of not only more calories in, but also less calories out. His company, he argued, is an easy target, when Americans' sedentary lifestyles deserve more blame.

Selling Carrots in Vending Machines? Government Regulators Are "Kidding Themselves"

For those who believe taxes and healthy-food bills threatens to make America a nanny state, Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and public health at New York University, said it is the government's job to encourage the health of the American public.

"The government already is deeply involved in regulation of food and what people eat; this isn't changing that," said Nestle. "It's tweaking that, to make it easier for people to eat healthily." The most welcome changes in the act, said Nestle, include trying to get more fruits and vegetables onto lunch trays, and making it easier for kids to enroll in meal programs.

Justin Wilson, an analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom, said there is a difference between public and private health. Wilson said the government should stay out of people's kitchens, and shouldn't regulate what parents feed their children. When it comes to public schools, however, he did say the government has a responsibility.

"I think that the government has more of a role in improving child nutrition in schools and other places where the government is feeding and cooking meals for them," said Wilson. He added, however, that if what they want isn't in the vending machines, kids will bring food from home or buy it outside of school. In other words, the government can't force kids to eat their vegetables.

"Creating an absolute ban [in vending machines] and selling carrot sticks and selling things that are absolutely healthy – they're kidding themselves," said Wilson.

NYU's Nestle said she understands the argument that children may seek out sugary or unhealthful food, but said schools have a responsibility to set standards and send a message about healthy eating to students.

"We are schools, we are an education, and if we are feeding you this, it is a normal part of society," Nestle said. "So if schools are feeding kids junk food, they are sending a message."

Balanced Meals Lead to More Alert Students

Nestle said she has visited many schools, and in those where kids eat what she called "adult food" – no sweets, no chicken fingers and no sodas – teachers report that students pay more attention, behave better, and don't get hungry at 3 o'clock because they ate a balanced meal. Nestle said she has also seen many schools feed children "garbage."

Responses to ABC News' blog post on the Healthy Hunger-Free Act show sharp divisions among Americans.

"Why does Congress, or Obama, or an unelected Czar always need to express statements like 'we won't enforce it here' or 'I promise not to apply it there?'" wrote one reader, "Ed." "If the laws are so unclear and patently ridiculous maybe just stop making them and let parents raise their children?!"

In response, another reader, "genhrules," wrote, "Ed "let parents raise their children?!" Well, because obviously the PARENTS aren't doing their job. And if parents are unwilling to use their common sense and be responsible parents, then maybe the schools (govt) should be a place where the child at least gets a fighting chance at learning what healthy means."

Nestle, the New York University professor, said the bill is not attacking parents.

"Anyone who's seen what kids eat in schools knows changes are needed," said Nestle. "This isn't about taking away parental control; it's about making it easier for kids to eat healthily in schools. I can't see what's wrong in that."

Caught in Bipartisan Crossfire

The Healthy Hunger-free Act has already been signed into law. The Food Safety Bill, however, has become a political football. The Senate passed it in November, but because of a technical flaw, it had to be sent to the House, which had to return it the Senate for approval one more time. Meanwhile, Sen. Mitch McConnell and 41 other Senate Republicans warned Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in early December that they would not let any legislation move forward until the Senate dealt with the Bush tax cuts.

The Senate's Monday vote to extend the Bush-era tax cuts could now clear the way for consideration of the Food Safety Bill later this week.

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