Nutrition Policy

Sarah Palin Stews Over Government Food Rules


Sarah Palin has found a new way to channel the Tea Party movement's anti-big-government fervor—and tweak First Lady Michelle Obama at the same time. On Nov. 9, she showed up at a Pennsylvania school bearing dozens of cookies, a gesture intended to show her disapproval of a state proposal to limit the sweets served in public schools. "Who should be making the decisions what you eat and school choice and everything else?" Palin asked the students, in a clear swipe at the First Lady's campaign to end childhood obesity. "Should it be government or should it be the parents?"

Food is about to become the next battle ground for, well, a whole menu of Washington favorites. There's big government, big business, and the diets of little children. Palin's school showdown happens to coincide with the recurring battle over the federal government's dietary guidelines, which the Health and Human Services Dept. and the U.S. Agriculture Dept. may release as early as January. The guidelines will form the basis for the next version of the familiar food pyramid, which will influence what's served in school cafeterias, what doctors tell their patients, and the nutritional advice given to recipients of food stamps.

This summer, recommendations by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, composed largely of academic scientists, set off a round of complaints from the food industry. The Salt Institute, for example, said that proposed advice to consumers to eat less sodium would induce Americans to eat even more food to satisfy their salt cravings. Beverage makers said that a proposed warning to Americans to reduce their consumption of sugary drinks overstated their role in the obesity epidemic.

The federal government has been issuing nutritional advice for more than a century and has been generating controversy almost since then. The guidelines are revised every five years and the last set, issued under President George W. Bush in 2005, ignited many objections from the food industry and others. Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at New York University, says the result was a pyramid that was so watered down it was "useless." The next iteration looks to be as much of a struggle, says Margo Wootan, nutrition policy director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "Businesses depend on selling a lot of unhealthy foods."

Once the guidelines are hammered out and the food pyramid is built—shapes other than the traditional pyramid are being considered, including a plate of food, say two advisers to the guideline-writing effort—Michelle Obama will help promote it. When her "Let's Move!" nutrition campaign was launched nine months ago, the food industry initially cooperated. Beverage companies agreed to display calorie information on the front of products and the largest providers of food to schools pledged to double the amount of fruit and vegetables in their meals within 10 years. But recently the companies have resisted further steps, for example by not reducing the volume of fast-food advertising to kids.

So far, Palin and Obama have not openly clashed, but as the food guideline fight gears up, the political tension is sure to escalate. Obama's nutrition efforts "really irritate small government conservatives," says Ross Baker, a political science professor at Rutgers University. "The Tea Party's message," he says, is "back off, people should be able to make mistakes even if it involves gorging themselves on too many nachos."

Or, as Palin put it in a post to her 300,000 Twitter followers before her school trip: "I'll intro kids 2 beauty of laissez-faire via serving them cookies amidst school cookie ban debate; Nanny state run amok!"

The bottom line: Sarah Palin appears to be siding with food companies, and against Michelle Obama, over government nutrition policy.

Andersen Brower is a reporter for Bloomberg News.

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