By Pam Linn

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Doomed to eat pizza and fries

There’s good news and bad news concerning our food supply.

Good news: The U.S. Senate last month actually voted in overhauling the farm bill (think gigantic subsidies to factory farms) to bar payments to people earning more than $1 million a year in adjusted gross income. It must be reconciled with House legislation, which has no payment limit, before becoming law. Leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees say this would cut Department of Agriculture spending by $23 billion.

Bad news: The Farm Bill is definitely not transparent, referred to as the “Secret Farm Bill of 2012,” and faces an uphill battle in Congress, whose members are swayed by agribusiness lobbying. Also, if corporations are now legally people, would a maximum of $125,000 per person, as proposed by Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), also limit ConAgra and Archer Daniels Midland to giving that amount? Hmmm.

Good news: the USDA proposed changes to the nation’s school lunch program that are designed to reduce childhood obesity by adding fruits and vegetables while cutting French fries and pizza.

Bad news: Congress this week overruled the USDA changes, with Republicans saying Americans don’t need “the nanny state to tell us how to eat.” The upshot is that tomato sauce on a slice of frozen pizza still counts as a serving of vegetables, a return to Reagan’s edict that catsup is a vegetable.

Good news: Harvard launches its Healthy Eating Plate to address flaws and omissions in the USDA’s MyPlate (issued in January at a cost to taxpayers of $2 million). Created by Harvard School of Public Health, it stresses whole grains and refined, plant-based proteins over red and processed meats and beneficial fats over artery-clogging saturated fats.

Bad news: The whole story is available only on the Internet, so people must be motivated to visit www.hsph.harvard.edu. Good luck with that. As with the USDA website, this is a time-consuming effort, and a hungry person is going to eat what’s close at hand.

To revisit what’s wrong with our food system we need to follow the money. Lobbying by food industry groups has everything to do with what emerges from Congress and the USDA. And if Congress has too much trouble with any government agency, it may simply cut off or reduce funding. In the current climate of budget cutting, that has already restricted the means by which government agencies can enforce existing regulations.

When it comes to food safety, we’re already seeing the crippling effect of funding cuts. Perhaps it should be pointed out to elected officials that they and their families have to eat many of the foods that are now not inspected. Recalls of tainted foods are, thanks to Congress, voluntary and conducted by the producer. And because most food in this country is widely distributed among the states, often traveling thousands of miles from farm or factory to packing plants, distributors and ultimately to retailers, tracking foods suspected of sickening people is tedious and slow. Food-borne illnesses will increase in direct proportion to the decrease of inspections.

Then there is the long-term cost to the nation’s health in the form of preventable illnesses, both acute and chronic. Obesity, increasingly prevalent in children as young as four thanks in part to the French fries and pizza, predicts for long and expensive medical treatments for diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, stroke, cancer and amputations.

Our congressional leaders have to invest so much time and money in their political careers that they can’t see beyond the next election cycle; hence their dependence on food industry lobbyists’ support. Another result is their sense that even if something really bad comes of this, odds are good that it won’t happen on their watch.

It’s not just the Occupiers who say the system is broken. But legislators who recognize this are retiring early rather than bucking the tide. Our president was elected on a promise to reform the way Washington works, but has come up woefully short of that goal.

It may be too late to get the money out of government, but futility can’t be the only argument. There has to be a way to limit the power of industry groups. And surely we’ve elected some legislators who can see far enough down the road, beyond the next election, to stand up for what we need to set things on a better course.

If they start with curtailing medical costs, most spent on chronic diseases, and work back to poor nutrition, that might be a start. Many schools nationwide have made great progress improving the quality of cafeteria food and funding everyday P.E. classes.

It has to start somewhere. Pizza and fries? Not!