The Washington Post

The government has finally killed the food pyramid

The Agriculture Department has finally killed the food pyramid. Almost everyone around my age learned about this government-sponsored polygon in grade school. I, for one, took it as license to eat lots of carbs. Six to 11 servings a day? Yes, please.

Now, the message, unveiled by Michelle Obama on Thursday , is simpler and healthier: Fill half your plate with fruits and vegetables. That's not a bad place to start.

But, clearly, there's lots more to good nutrition than that. Plus, knowledge of what makes an ideal diet doesn't necessarily translate into adopting it: The common availability of mirrors ensures that plenty of overweight Americans must realize their diets are somehow deficient. Killing the food pyramid is the least the government can do.

If Republicans have their way, though, the government won't be able to do much more than that.


Among other things, Republicans want to exempt convenience stores, markets and others from rules requiring calories counts on their products. They also want to stop the first revamp of federally-funded school lunches in more than a decade because vegetables are more expensive than deep-fried, butter-coated Oreos, or whatever it is that makes school lunches so full of salt, sugar and carbs.

Of course, there's no serious infringement of liberty to requiring calorie counts. In fact, doing so assists consumers in making the sorts of rational choices that markets require to work well. Even if it just helps those who are already trying to eat healthily, it’s worth the effort.

School lunches, meanwhile, are too often a disgusting joke, making this a program in which a small amount of government money can clearly do a large amount of good in the tangible lives of American children. A recent study evidenced what anyone who ever ate a public-school chalupa growing up already knows: Children on the school lunch program are 29 percent more likely to be obese than those who brought their own food. Sure, there are other variables to consider, such as socioeconomic effects. But it's still probably true that the government is making things worse here, as well as with its vast array of crop subsidies, which make things such as sugar, corn, wheat and whole milk cheaper.

Think obesity just isn't a problem for the government to touch? The government is already deeply involved — beyond its school lunch program or its agricultural payments — because, ultimately, it forces those who make sensible choices to subsidize the medical care of those who do not. That’s a big bill: Obesity results in around $150 billion in annual medical costs. Which is part of why policies such as taxes on diabetes-inducing sugary drinks make sense. They preserve consumer choice, but they make more of the full, social cost of one's decisions clearer in the prices one pays. That's the sort of policy that promotes personal responsibility and efficient markets. What do Republicans favor?

Stephen Stromberg is a Post editorial writer. He specializes in domestic policy, including energy, the environment, legal affairs and public health.


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