HAGELIN: Making sure children eat well is parents’ job

Culture Challenge of the Week: The Food Police

Food is in the news. Specifically, the food Big Government wants you — or your children — to eat.

It started with Michelle Obama’s headline grab: In 2010, she launched an initiative to combat childhood obesity. It’s a worthwhile campaign — childhood obesity is something that ought to concern parents, for their children’s sakes. According to official reports, 1 in 3 children is obese or overweight, and the resulting medical costs of obesity-related medical problems add up to a nearly $150 billion problem each year.

But as childhood obesity has become the first lady’s signature issue, it has assumed the air of “government knows best” rather than empowering parents to make informed decisions about what’s best for their families.

When she launched the effort, Mrs. Obama declared, “We want to eliminate this problem of childhood obesity in a generation. We want to get that done.”

Who, exactly, is “we”?

The government. From its inception, Mrs. Obama’s campaign has left government fingerprints suggesting a pattern of reaching as far into children’s lives as possible, with typical government tools: money, regulations and bureaucracy.

To support his wife’s campaign, President Obama originally promised to reauthorize the school lunch program and expand its budget by $10 billion over 10 years. (The food wars — fought by potato lobbyists and frozen-food purveyors — plus budget constraints, produced new school lunch regulations that add a government-estimated $3.2 billion dollars to the program’s costs.) The program’s regulations control everything from portion size to ingredients to food selection. But, to no one’s surprise, government food regulations don’t solve the problem.

Mr. Obama set up a special task force to bring together business, nonprofit and government efforts to fight childhood obesity. Twelve — count ‘em, 12 — federal agencies weighed in. Predictably, the task force developed a list of 70 recommendations. To put them into practice, Mrs. Obama has leaned on businesses, the military and schools to provide more nutritious food selections, bring grocery stores and markets to underserved areas, and encourage schools to keep recess in the schedule so children can exercise.

The results? Well, we’re waiting. Sure, some menus have changed: Providing healthier options to military populations and schoolchildren is a good thing. But while expanded options for consumers are a good thing, government dictates are not. The hype has generated some overzealous program administrators, such as the ones at a North Carolina elementary school who rejected the mom-packed lunches brought to school by several children as nutritionally inadequate and replaced them with cafeteria-supplied chicken nuggets.

Now we have yet another government website (choosemyplate.gov), costing money to build and maintain, offering innovative tips and food wisdom such as this: “Tip of the Day — Depending on their age, children can help shop for, clean, peel or cut up fruits.” Really? America’s moms surely never would have thought of that on their own. More to the point, food tips like this will have little impact on a child’s weight without the central ingredient: parents.

How to Save Your Family: Parents, take responsibility for healthy habits

Don’t get me wrong — I strongly support healthy eating and exercise programs. And physicians groups have been emphasizing better nutrition and more exercise for years. But as every parent knows, simply putting vegetables on a child’s plate doesn’t ensure they will end up in the right stomach. (Did you know dogs love vegetables?)

The solution to the problem of childhood obesity is the same as the solution to many of the problems ailing our nation: strong families.

The epidemic of childhood obesity has developed alongside the fragmentation and destruction of the nuclear family. According to the Task Force on Childhood Obesity, children’s obesity rates began trending upward in the late 1970s. Not so coincidentally, obesity rates rose as more moms entered the workforce, screens (TV, computer and hand-held) became baby sitters and more children than ever were born into single-parent families.

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