November 20th, 2011
10:35 AM ET

Letters to the President #1035: 'The fruit of the pizza plant'

Reporter's Note: The first lady has put some effort into promoting nutrition, especially among young people. What I’m asking in today’s letter to the White House is, just how far can or should the government go in promoting such things?

Dear Mr. President,

The recent kerfuffle over whether pizza should be considered a vegetable in school lunches almost certainly accomplished two things: 1) It made politicians once again look like idiots and, 2) It underscored what remains perhaps the single most divisive philosophical question in Congress: How much should the government decide for us, and how much should we decide for ourselves?

Nutrition is a great battleground for this. We all know that America is hugely overweight and out of shape. If you don’t know it, just spend an afternoon in the Detroit airport and you’ll get the picture. A slimmed down, and more active populace would certainly mean fewer chronic health problems, fewer work days lost to illness, and perhaps generally more productivity. But how should we get to that point?

On one side are those who say it must be primarily an individual choice. Each American must decide for him or herself what to eat, when to exercise, and how many bags of friend hamburgers to scarf down. “Hey,” they argue, “this is a basic freedom. And if people want to eat themselves into the grave that is their choice.” For what it is worth, you might consider that you were permitted to give up smoking on your own…no one forced you to, and I suspect you would have resented it if they had tried.

On the other side are those who insist the government should step in, especially when it comes to kids. Like seatbelts, they argue that greater regulation of fast foods, and school lunches will save lives by pointing young Americans in the right direction nutritionally and prevent years of heartache. Literally.

Both views seem to have merit, but I suspect history favors the former. The simple truth is, we’ve had a devil of a time telling people what to consume, and when we decide to step in, we often do so in a capricious and unsustainable matter. Prohibition comes to mind.

It all makes me think that our focus should probably be more on educating and coaxing people into eating better foods, rather than forcing them to. The goal, after all, is just a healthier population, and we ought to seek the quickest, most effective path to that end; and one fraught with endless political battles is unlikely to suffice.

Just a few thoughts for a Sunday. I’m off to buy doughnuts. Want to sneak out and come along? Ha!


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Filed under: Letters to the President • Opinion • President Barack Obama • T1 • Tom Foreman