The End of Reason What Potatoes Say about the State of US Democracy

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Part 3: Going It Alone


Shelly Allen, the director of the association, remembers all the emails she suddenly started getting from potato farmers. They asked for her support, and they reminded her that some schools were getting potatoes for free, that it was a patriotic duty to support local farmers, and that school lunches were funded in part with the taxes paid by the potato farmers.

She says that she would have preferred to see children eating fewer potatoes, but she supported her state, even though her group's national umbrella organization, the School Nutrition Association (SNA), warned her against going it alone in support of French fries. The SNA had already decided that it was taking a neutral position on the issue, and it hoped that Allen would do the same. "I know that it would really be better if children didn't eat as many French fries in school," she says. "But we were also talking about Colorado, our own state, where we're fortunate enough to be able to buy vegetables locally. We want to promote that."

Anyone was allowed to be part of the discussion over the guidelines that Obama wanted to issue. Anyone could submit comments, criticism or support. The Agriculture Department received 133,286 letters. In the end, however, it didn't come down to those letters but, rather, to the voices of a few influential lobbyists who sifted through a large amount of information to come up with just the right slogan, the key selling point.

America's political system is both one of the most transparent and most professional in the world. One of the purposes of Washington's think tanks is to maintain experts within the political spectrum, even if their use is limited outside of policymaking.

The flipside of this highly professionalized democracy, however, is that it is controlled by people who have always been there, are well-connected and, in some cases, may have worked on both sides of an issue or the political aisle.

Lobbying Work Pays Off

After he had assembled his coalition, Senator Udall, in his campaign to rescue French fries, wrote letters to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the Senate Agriculture Committee and his fellow senators. In the letters, he used the arguments he had been fed by Mix and Ehrlich in Colorado. He quoted the Colorado School Nutrition Association, which claimed that it would no longer be able to serve school lunches if potatoes were eliminated from the menu. He quoted his sources in a key speech to the Senate, but he neglected to mention Professor Willett's study.

The United States is one of the richest industrialized nations in the world, with a median household income of $49,445 (€40,416). Despite all income disparities, Americans are spoiled. They use roads, bridges and a public healthcare system, and yet they don't want to pay taxes if they can help it. Government services are taken for granted instead of being seen as an achievement, as they were in 1954, when President Dwight Eisenhower had the interstate highway system built. Unlike people in up-and-coming economies, Americans are no longer filled with pride over the things their government provides. Instead, a sense of entitlement has taken hold, and politicians lack the courage to tell their voters that the only way to get what they want is to pay higher taxes.

In the end, costs would be the key argument used to rescue French fries and to continue serving food that fills children with unnecessarily large numbers of calories. If Obama's guidelines went into effect as they are written, costs would go up by 14 cents a meal, a seemingly negligible amount when one considers that the health of future generations is at stake.

But it won't happen. When the politicians in Washington voted on Mark Udall's Senate Amendment 804, it became clear that the senator's work paid off. If the vote on that afternoon had been about common sense, no one would have supported the amendment. But the number of votes in favor of the amendment practically skyrocketed, first clearing the 50-percent hurdle and then reaching a two-thirds majority.

By the time all the votes had been cast, there were 70 yes votes and 30 no votes. It was an overwhelming, historic vote for French fries in a Congress that only recently couldn't agree on anything. Senator Udall, the man who rescued French fries in America's school cafeterias, then thanked his colleagues for their "healthy common sense."

It's About Politics

It's the spring of 2012. Udall's amendment in favor of French fries is now in effect. Obama signed the bill as though the debate over the amendment had never happened. He acted as if the new guidelines were still a success, which is partially true, given that more fruit will be served and the amount of sugar in foods will be reduced in school cafeterias. But he is no longer mentioning the big political fight he lost, the dispute over French fries. He has to be satisfied with what was left of the legislation.

Professor Willett has a meeting at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, just outside of Washington. He is there to prepare a small group of experts, physicians and nutritionists for the third edition of his book "Nutritional Epidemiology," which is the bible in the industry. It's an important event, and the new edition is so important, in fact, that it justifies an entire event devoted to it at the most important biomedical research agency in the world.

There have been many new findings, says Willett, and the third edition will be much more comprehensive than the second one, although he was unable to fit all the new information into the book. But the structure and the chapters haven't changed, he says. There is one change, however: He's added a chapter, Chapter 16.

"Unfortunately, it was necessary," he says.

Chapter 16 isn't about nutrition. It's about politics.

Read SPIEGEL's introduction to this series on good governance here and the first installment on Brazil here. Check back for more on China and Denmark in the coming weeks.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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