by Mary Kate Cary

Small government conservatives should applaud the first lady's nutrition push

Small government conservatives should applaud the first lady's nutrition push

In November, Sarah Palin made a paid appearance at a private school in Pennsylvania. Arriving with dozens of cookies, she explained, "I had heard that there's a debate going on in Pennsylvania over whether public schools are going to ban sweets, cakes, cookies, that type of thing." She characterized the first lady's initiative for school lunches as "a nanny state run amok" and later tweeted that the cookies helped her make a point about "laissez-faire government."

Palin went on to say that "the decisions [about] what you eat" could be made either by the government or by parents. "It should be the parents," she said. Similarly, talk show host Glenn Beck said that in the context of nutrition, the government "thinks you're incapable of making decisions."

Here's more:

"Everywhere I go, fortunately, I meet parents who are working very hard to make sure that their kids are healthy. . . . They're trying to teach their kids the kind of healthy habits that will stay with them for a lifetime. . . . But when our kids spend so much of their time each day in school, and when many children get up to half their daily calories from school meals, it's clear that we as a nation have a responsibility to meet as well." The same speaker added: "We can't just leave it up to the parents. I think that parents have a right to expect that their efforts at home won't be undone each day in the school cafeteria or in the vending machine in the hallway. I think that our parents have a right to expect that their kids will be served fresh, healthy food that meets high nutritional standards."

That last speaker was Michelle Obama. Yet most conservatives would have to agree with her that, as parents, we have a right to expect that our schools won't undo the good work families are doing at home. And most taxpayers would agree, too: As a limited-government conservative, I don't want taxpayers' money wasted on school food that is high calorie, low nutrition, and compounding America's obesity epidemic.

It is an expensive epidemic.

A 2009 study in the journal Health Affairs found that the cost of hospitalizations due to childhood obesity nearly doubled, from $126 million to $238 million, between 2001 and 2005. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the direct and indirect costs of obesity are now as high as $147 billion annually, with Medicare, Medicaid, and private insurance spending on obese patients all up over the last decade. Obesity is certainly one of the culprits in exploding entitlement costs, not to mention rising healthcare costs.

It's also causing lost productivity and days missed from work, setting the economy back about $115 billion a year due to disability and related costs for obese workers, according to an actuarial study out last month. Statistics show that more than 40 percent of young adults are now overweight or obese in 39 states, up from just one state a decade ago. In the military, the proportion of 17-to-24-year-old recruits who were rejected for being overweight jumped from 12 percent in 1995 to 21 percent in 2008. In addition, the military discharges more than 1,200 new enlistees each year because of weight issues -- at the cost of $50,000 per person, or $60 million annually, to recruit and train their replacements. The costs to our economy and national security will only get worse as the rising percentage of obese children grow up.

Jamie Oliver, the celebrity chef who has started a movement to reform school cafeterias, has documented how decades of food safety rules for school lunches have resulted in nothing but precooked, processed food -- such as frozen pizza, french fries, and chicken nuggets -- being served because of the possible dangers of raw meat. Combine that with other safety rules about having knives in cafeterias and you've got a situation where many children eat processed "finger food" such as nuggets and fries from kindergarten through eighth grade, using their hands, never once touching a fork or a knife at school. This is what happens when food safety experts -- not nutritionists or parents -- are in charge of school lunches. Schools should reinforce what parents are teaching kids -- not only about the value of a square meal, but how to eat one with a knife and fork.

It may surprise conservatives to know that the first lady has stayed away from proposing direct government intervention or taxes on junk foods and sodas. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act she promoted increases expenditures by only 6 cents per school lunch and directs that vending machine sales are not eligible for reimbursement by the feds. In addition to new nutrition guidelines, there are pilot programs for organic food as well. Most important, the modest half-a-billion-a-year cost of the legislation was offset by cuts elsewhere. Hardly a government takeover -- in fact, you could call it a laissez-faire approach.

And, rather than a "nanny state run amok," as Palin charges, Mrs. Obama has been using the bully pulpit to encourage a sea change similar to the ones that have turned the public against smoking in public, drinking while pregnant, and riding bikes without a helmet. It's surprisingly similar to Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign and Barbara Bush's efforts to increase family literacy, both of which sought to change the culture rather than overregulate.

The fact is that many children get every meal but dinner at school because of before-school breakfast programs, subsidized lunches, and snacks at after-school care. It's also a fact that, for the first time in our nation's history, the next generation is more likely to lead shorter, sicker lives than the current one. Getting obesity under control is in everyone's best interest -- liberal and conservative.


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