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5th May

First Published in The New York Sun, May 5, 2006

By Andrew Wolf

The hysteria over the recently discovered “childhood obesity epidemic” has now reached fever pitch. Key players in America’s soft drink industry voluntarily agreed to remove their products that contain sugar from sale in schools. This agreement covers all schools, public, private, parochial, presumably even charters.

On the other hand, the folks who own those snack vans one finds parked outside of schools must really be whooping it up. Children will still drink Coke and Pepsi and Gatorade, but they will buy it from outside vendors.

This comes on the heels of Mayor Bloomberg’s decree banning whole milk from city schools, replacing it with the low-fat variety.The state of Connecticut has gone even further. Only skim milk may be served in Connecticut schools
Leading the effort to remove soda from the schools is President Clinton. Fresh from his encounter with heart disease, he seems bent on atoning for his years of fast food gluttony by denying that pleasure to everyone else. Speaking for myself I preferred him as a libertine rather than as a scold.

Mr. Clinton asserted that removing just 45 calories a day will mean that in 10 years a child will weigh 20 pounds less than he or she would have otherwise. He maintains that the voluntary soda initiative will cut 100 calories from children’s diets. Thus, by his formula, each child will weigh about 44 pounds less on average at the end of 10 years.This sounds like borderline anorexia to me. Taking this to the next step, if a parent simply withholds another 200 calories, say a bowl of cereal, each day, the youngster will disappear altogether, before too long.

This is nonsense. Most children can eat huge amounts and not get fat at all. If there is a “childhood obesity” problem, I would suspect that children are spending too much time in front of a television set. Or perhaps longer school days are contributing to their bloat. Many New York City schoolchildren are spending 37.5 extra minutes in their classroom seat each day, rather than burning calories by frolicking in the playground. What is more important? A slim waistline or a full brain?

In a society where so many young women suffer from eating disorders, maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to further scare our children with questionable health claims that seem to change on a daily basis.

This settlement had to be a difficult pill for the soft drink industry to swallow. By agreeing not to sell sodas and sports drinks in schools, there is an implication that somehow these products may represent a real danger to students.This is clearly being done for pragmatic reasons — the soda companies are attempting to inoculate themselves from possible litigation.

There is also a politically correct aspect for some to try to ensure that people eat only “acceptable” foods. Health and nutrition seems to be a wonderful excuse to advance this agenda. Another is cruelty to animals — the foie gras industry in New York State, reading the handwriting on the wall, is advancing a bill in the State Legislature that will voluntarily close themselves down — sometime in the next decade, rather than now, as animal rights activists demand.While this isn’t New York’s biggest industry, it is situated in the economically depressed Hudson Valley, where jobs are at a premium. Ban foie gras today and beef tomorrow?

When my younger son was a student at one of Gotham’s private schools, he came home one day complaining of the food served at lunch. “Why not just have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?” I suggested. Peanut butter and jelly was always the back-up meal offered by schools and camps. “Peanut butter isn’t allowed any more,” replied my son. “Some kids are allergic to it.”

In the minds of the school administrators, the only way to handle the possibility that some children may be allergic was to remove peanut butter from every child’s diet. Is this a unique response? Diane Ravitch, in her book “The Language Police,” reports that an informational reading passage on peanuts, proposed for use on a standardized test, was eliminated lest it upset children who are allergic to them.

When I married 36 years ago, I was as thin as a rail. This despite years of whole milk, Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda, Ice Cream, Hebrew National franks, hot pastrami sandwiches, and a Jewish mother who believed that if I ate prodigiously, it would somehow satiate the hunger of starving European children. I didn’t eat many hamburgers — McDonald’s was unknown to me, and anyway my mother was skeptical of meat that was not ground in her presence, but I suspect that it takes several Big Macs to equal a good, hefty hot pastrami sandwich. The delicious big, greasy French fries all of us ate then were prepared in oil that couldn’t have been good for us. After all this, I was still thin.

I have since gained more than a few pounds. I blame no one but myself. I like my steak and my wine; I love to cook and dine out at the best restaurants I can afford. This is my choice, and it should remain so.

My idol is Julia Child. I am sure that if you cut her, she would have bled pure creamery butter. But she died, happy, at the age of 92, and was still making terrific television shows even in her late 80s.

That said, I do want to lose weight, and want to eat at least some healthy foods. But I want it to be my choice, not imposed by mass hysteria based at least in part on misinformation.

© 2006 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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