Junking Junk Food





Earlier this month, Sarah Palin showed up in Bucks County, Pa., with “dozens and dozens” of cookies, suggesting that the state’s schoolchildren risked losing the right to the occasional classroom treat because of a high-minded anti-sugar edict from the board of education. Pretty much everything about the setup was wrong. Pennsylvania wasn’t, as Palin tweeted, in the midst of a “school cookie ban” debate. And the school she turned into a photo op wouldn’t have been subject to such a ban had one existed; it wasn’t a public school but a private Christian academy. And while Palin might have been seizing an opportunity to “intro kids 2 beauty of laissez-faire,” she wasn’t just visiting with schoolchildren but was delivering a paid speech at a fund-raiser....

Perhaps the most successful government effort to regulate what and how much Americans consume — the food rationing programs of World War II — recognized this political-cultural-emotional scheme. Needing a number of foods, meat in particular, for the boys overseas, the government realized that it could successfully spread its message of “eat differently” only if it fought on two fronts: the nutritional and the psychological. And so it pursued a two-pronged campaign, with the Food and Nutrition Board handling the nutrition, and the psychology tasked to the Committee on Food Habits, led by the anthropologist Margaret Mead and charged by the National Research Council with “mobilizing anthropological and psychological insights as they bear upon the whole problem of changing food habits in order to raise the nutritional status of the people of the United States.” Eating the way the government wanted you to eat — healthfully and with a mind to greater public welfare — was a way of displaying patriotism, adding to the war effort.

After the war, however, the work of the Committee on Food Habits was discontinued. But the government kept disseminating nutritional advice, with the departments of agriculture and health and human services issuing nutritional guidelines that, in recent decades, have been revised every five years to reflect new and evolving scientific developments. There has, however, been no concerted parallel attempt to create more pointed and sophisticated approaches to changing how Americans think and feel about food. So we ended up with a wealth of knowledge about best nutritional practices but no cultural change to back it up....

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