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Elaine Weiss

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We're Not Laughing

Posted: 12/06/11 11:19 AM ET

If they weren't so damaging to children, congressional leaders' explanations for their policy decisions that cater to big money interests at those children's expense would be downright funny. The most recent of these hijinks is the insistence that pizza and French fries count as school lunch vegetables, in place of the actual fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains recommended by the White House, U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Academies of Science.

According to House Appropriations Committee leadership, continuing to subsidize the frozen food, salt, and potato grower industries is important because it will "prevent overly burdensome and costly regulations and... provide greater flexibility for local school districts to improve the nutritional quality of meals." A few particularly creative members even suggested that it is a matter of principle -- of not having the federal government dictate what children should not eat. In this case, this means not telling them to eat less fat, sugar and sodium. Apparently, it is much less critical that we address our obesity epidemic, cultivate and model healthy eating habits, and help teachers by putting in their classrooms students who are alert enough to learn. We laughed at Ronald Reagan in the 1980s when he made ketchup a school lunch vegetable to cut costs. Since then, obesity rates have continued to climb. Should we keep laughing?

This rationale is eerily reminiscent of arguments by many of the same policymakers earlier this year, during the budget hijacking process, that we must not invest in early childhood care and education, smaller and more manageable classrooms, health care, afterschool programs, or others that improve learning, because that would burden future generations. In the interests of our children, they asserted, we must drastically cut the programs that would enable those children to function as productive, civic-minded workers and members of society.

These refusals to invest in even a minimal floor of support for children, and repeated eagerness to put the interests of agribusiness and all business ahead of those of children, especially the most vulnerable young and low-income children, are very damaging. We will all pay the price in ballooning health care costs, lower worker productivity and declining civic engagement. That's no laughing matter.