My mother didn’t raise me to be a lobbyist. But there I was on Wednesday, jawboning congressmen and aides to the U.S. Senate on the virtues of legislation that would give the U.S. Department of Agriculture authority to prohibit junk food in the nation’s schools.
Say bye, bye to vending machines spewing chips, candy bars, sugary sodas.
If the talks I was involved in are any indication, the proposal to set national nutrition standards for all food sold on school grounds–not just the federally subsidized school lunch–has a good chance of passage if it can make it through the committee process. Even conservative Republicans say they are getting the message from constituents about childhood obesity and diabetes. Momentum for healthy food choices may be reaching a bi-partisan tipping point.
Wednesday was action day for Participant Media, the group that produced the film Food Inc. documenting the horrors of industrial agriculture and previously An Inconvenient Truth,. for which Al Gore won an Oscar. More than 100 activists from at least 30 states gathered at a downtown hotel for an elegant early breakfast and briefing by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. (The breakfast was dressed to the nines, but turned out to be a low-fat insulin bomb: yolk-less–and flavorless–spinach strata accompanied by baskets of cakes, muffins and sweetened yogurts.) Then we were loaded onto buses and dropped on Captiol Hill to fan out and take the message of healthier school food to the nation’s law makers.
The House bill is being pushed by Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA). A Senate measure was jointly introduced by Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). We were armed with personalized information packets brimming with facts about the dubious “food” choices currently being peddled in schools as well as detailed talking points with which to present our case. We all got copies of Food Inc., the book, as well as glossy packets to leave with legislators. With so many different gears meshing perfectly, this operation had the earmarks of an exceptionally well organized military assault.
Being from the District of Columbia, where we have no vote in Congress, I really had no one of my own to lobby. (Presumably, our non-voting delegate to the House, Eleanor Holmes Norton, is already on board with healthy school food.). So I joined a couple from Arkansas and proceeded to the office of Rep. John Boozman (R-AR). Boozman was amiable but non-commital. He even suggested that the federal government should not be meddling in the affairs of Arkansas schools. “We want Arkansans to be able to decide what’s best for them in as many areas as possible.” Perhaps local school boards should deal with junk food? “Your school board could deal with this in a day,” said Boozman, who was himself a school board member before being elected to federal office.
Conservatives have always loved school food as a way to support agriculture, but have never liked the idea of the federal government how to run the program. Yet I detected genuine concern on Boozman’s part about the health consequences of selling junk food to children. The proposed legislation would allow the USDA to set nutrition standards for the a la carte selections in school cafeterias as well as vending machines and school stores, with some exceptions allowed for fundraising events. The USDA’s current guidelines prohibit “foods of minimal nutrtional value” in the subsidized lunch line. But you needn’t go far to find all sorts of nasty treats on display, including doughnuts, fruit drinks with more sugar than fruit, ice cream bars, chips, candy bars, breath mints. (Strangely, seltzer water is prohibited. What’s wrong with seltzer water?)
I found Boozman to be a kindred spirit. Like me, he thinks carbohydrates are behind our epidemic dietary woes. And of course federal guidelines encourage Americans to eat more carbohydrates while cutting back on fats. “I think carbs just make you hungry,” he opnined.
At a pre-lunch press conference and pep rally, Sen. Harkin asked, “Why do we even have vending machines in schools?” For years Harkin fought a losing battle to remove vending machines from schools. Now he is seeing his efforts vindicated. “Parents are now saying, Enough!” he said. “Schools ought to be a sanctuary for our kinds, not a place for people to hawk their foods.”
After all the talk about healthy school food, I was a bit perplexed by the box lunches we were served packed with chips and brownies and bottled water. (Say, does healthy food ever dial up the healthy environment movement for advice on bottled water?).
Then the moment I was dreading arrived. I had been scheduled to pay afternoon visits to some of the Senate’s most ardent Republicans, Alabama’s Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions. But the two Alabama food activists who were supposed to accompany me never materialized. I was headed straight into the lion’s den all on my lonesome. Would a radical foodnik from D.C. be laughed out of their paneled GOP offices? Or would they try to convert me to the dark side?
I needn’t have worried. Aides to the senators were not only gracious, but actually seemed receptive to the idea of removing junk food from schools. Wouldn’t they be a little concerned about Big Government telling Alabama school authorities what they could or could not feed their kids? Not as concerned as they are about the health consequences of all those vending machines full of sugar and refined carbs, according to these senate aides. Alabama has quite an obesity problem. It ranks seventh in the nation, with 25 percent of its adults classified as obese. Nearly 10 percent of Alabamans are listed as suffering diabetes, the highest rate in the country.
One aide said she’s been getting calls and e-mails not only from parents, but from school principals supporting the anti-junk legislation.
It does seem counter-productive to be offering kids candy bars and potato chips in school when we as a nation cannot provide health care to everyone and are battling to get health care costs under control before they bankrupt the federal government. Doesn’t it?
Derek Miller, a Harkin aide who has spent the last six years pushing this legislation, sees the chances of passage as good. “The stars seem to be alligning,” he said. Participant Media’s online petition in support of the legislation garnered some 50,000 signatures in a month. Look for movement in the fall.
Meanwhile, I will be following up my visits to congressional offices with e-mails. “Follow-up is the single most important thing,” says Miller. These congressional staffers have a million things to do, a million distractions every day. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, and all that. They need constant reminding. I am only too happy to oblige.
Can you tell I kinda like this lobbying business?
For more great stories about how we are taking back our food system, be sure to visit Fight Back Fridays.