Aug 312013

Early Thursday afternoon, I was visited by Dr. Alder Wood Smithfield Bacon, PhD DVM RD CDN, Chief, Dietetics and Nutrition Branch, Content and Portion Control Division, Office of the National School Lunch Program, Food and Nutrition Service, United States Department of Agriculture.  He began our consultation appointment by sitting down on the couch by the picture window, placing his briefcase on the coffee table, taking from it a waxed paper bag, withdrawing from the bag a huge slice of muffaletta sandwich, and proceeding to chow down with obvious gusto.
“So busy today,” he explained between munches, “I haven’t had lunch yet.  Anything to drink?”
“Sure,” I replied.  “I bet a nice gin and tonic would go with that pretty well.”
“Oh, yeah,” Dr. Bacon nodded enthusiastically, “that would be great!”
So, drawing on the resources of my office refrigerator and liquor cabinet, I prepared two Botanist gin and tonics, with a cold bottle of Stirring’s genuine quinine and white cane sugar elixir, poured over crackling cold Evian ice cubes and garnished with slices of Bahamian key lime.  “Outstanding!” Dr. Bacon proclaimed as I handed one to him.  “As a matter of fact, nobody I know makes a better drink than you.  How do you do it, anyway?”
“My father,” I revealed, “was a renowned bartender at the Stuyvesant New Amsterdam Hotel on 5th Avenue in New York City.  Prior to that, he was an engineer at General Dynamics.  In the 1970’s, he invented the modern martini, using eigenvector analysis.  I’m named after one of his favorite creations, the Tom Collins martini.”
“Like father, like son,” Dr. Bacon beamed, smacking his lips after taking a long pull off the highball glass.  “This complements the flavors of my muffaletta to absolute perfection!”
“Glad to be of assistance,” I said, resuming my seat at my desk.  “What can I do for you today?”
“Well,” he began, “as you know, FLOTUS has been leaning on the USDA since 2008 about making school lunches more healthful – hell, I’ve been coming to visit you for policy advice about that issue since 2009.  Then there were the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids National School Lunch Act of 2010…” he burped discreetly as he paused to delicately wipe his lips and take another draught of gin and tonic, ”… and 77 FR 17 of January 26, 2012, which mandated progressively more nutritious and lower calorie school lunch menus nationwide.  The 2012 Federal Register Notice specified, as you know, calorie caps for elementary, middle school and high school lunches – 850 for high school lunches, 700 for middle schools and a 650 calorie cap for kids in elementary school.  The Federal Register Notice also placed restrictions on milk fat content – 1 percent and non-fat only.  It also mandated serving of meat alternatives at breakfast, coupled with restrictions on lunch protein portions; the use of whole grains, legumes, fresh fruit, green and orange vegetables, and, of course, periodic federal nutritional review.  As you know, we’ve been struggling with the blowback from that for over a year now.”
“The basic problem being,” I observed, “that the kids haven’t been eating the food.”
“A number of school districts have lost considerable sums,” he noted, “because the kids have been keeping their lunch money in their pockets and using it to buy junk food after school instead.”
“Then,” I added, “there are the kids whose families are not so well off, who have to eat the free lunches, no matter how they taste, no matter how skimpy the portion, no matter what’s on the plate.”

“Remember,” he asked, “that video some of them made – We are Hungry?  Would you believe it has over 1 million views on YouTube now and has a three-minute advertisement for drive-in fast-food restaurants tacked on the front?”
“That’s capitalism,” I shrugged.  “The point was, as I recall, that an 850 calorie lunch isn’t enough for a high school kid with any kind of athletic activities in their curriculum.  The video features a song parody of We Are Young by Fun featuring Janelle Monáe, accompanied by shots of kids falling down on the basketball court, fainting during track, struggling to stay awake in class, and contains a teenager dressed in a ‘Federal Policy Guy’ T-shirt telling everybody what to eat for lunch.  And as I remember, the denouement begins with elementary school children crawling on their bellies, pretending to be starving.”
“And culminates,” he concluded morosely, “with the kids burning the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids National School Lunch Act of 2010 in effigy.  You’d think that would have been enough to get Michelle Obama off her hobby horse, but no!  The 2012 actions just threw more fat into the fire!”
“Not, presumably,” I interjected, “any trans-fat, I hope.”
“Oh no,” he ruefully declared, “Heaven forefend!  The 2012 Federal Register Notice specifically bans trans-fats!  It’s got to be totally pure and natural fat in the fire, make no mistake about it!  This Tuesday, some little urchin in Harlan County, Kentucky told a member of the school board that their federally-mandated Michelle-Obama-approved school lunch ‘tastes like vomit,’ and then the school board member told the media, after which the whole thing’s blown sky high!  The kids hate the new milk, the new bread, the new protein portions, the new meat alternatives, you name it, they say they’d rather starve than eat the stuff!”
“Well,” I inquired, rhetorically, as Dr. Bacon waded into his muffaletta, “can you blame them?   Michelle Obama has America’s children eating a bland, low salt, low fat, low calorie, low carbohydrate, low protein, high fiber diet – the sort of thing a cardiologist might have prescribed forty years ago for a middle aged man who had experienced a heart attack.  I mean really – three ounces of dry turkey meat, a pile of steamed broccoli, a kitchen spoon of brown rice, an apple and a half pint of skim milk?  How does the First Lady expect that to compete with the McDonald’s, the KFC, the Taco Bell or the Pizza Hut the kid can visit after school before their parents get home?”
“But Tom,” he complained, wiping muffaletta from his lips again after another swig of gin and tonic, “you know the USDA can’t possibly condone burgers, brats, hot dogs, corn dogs, tacos, fried chicken, fried potatoes, fried onions, fried burritos, fried eggs, fried ham, and deep-fried ice cream on the breakfast and lunch plates of American youth!  They’re already a bunch of soft, pudgy porkers who do nothing but play video games all day.  Just look at them!  At lot of them have the same cardiovascular profile of that middle aged man from forty years ago to whom you just referred.  Michelle Obama’s right about trying to do something about that, at least.  It’s obvious the basic concept is correct here, at any rate.”  
“But only if the kids actually eat the food,” I pointed out, “and if there’s enough of what they will eat on their plate.”
“I know, I know,” he admitted, “and we’ve decided to make some compromises on that front.  Tomorrow, Secretary Vilsack will send a letter to Congress telling them that the USDA is lifting restrictions on meat content and setting a new timetable so we can work out some of these problems with new flexibility paradigms.  We need to develop student meals that fit within the new standards, while at the same time coming up with a solution which ensures children receive a wholesome, nutritious meal every day of the week.  That’s our essential conundrum, right there, Tom.  Any ideas?”
“Sure,” I told him, as I accessed the Web at my workstation.  “Tell me, how does this sound: ‘Pineapple Gazpacho Fusilli with Raw Local Tomato Dressing; Vintner’s Salad; All Natural BBQ Wings; Black Bean and Tortilla Casserole; Sauteed Local Greens; Steamed Sweet Corn and Peppers; and, for dessert, chilled Farmer’s Market Canteloupe.”
“Sounds excellent,” Dr. Bacon purred, closing his eyes and pursing his lips, taking another swig of his gin and tonic.
“And this?” I continued.  “Chilled Blueberry Soup; Sweet Potato Craisin Salad; Brazilian Salad; Classic Pepperoni and Cheese or Vegetarian Flatbread Pizza; Garlic Roasted Local Zucchini; and, for dessert, chilled Local Watermelon.”
“Also sounds great,” he vouched.
“And this?” I pressed on.  “Grapes and Cheese; Lentil, Beet and Orange Salad; All Natural Meatball Subs; Margherita Orzo; Farmer’s Market Vegetables; Baked Potato Wedges and, for dessert, Farmer’s Market Peaches.”
“So which restaurant menus are you looking at when you make these meals up?” Dr. Bacon wondered.
“The first two,” I dryly informed him, “are next Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s school lunch menus for the Upper and Middle divisions at the Sidwell Friends School, seventh through twelfth grade.  The third one is next Thursday’s mid-morning snack and lunch menu for the Lower division, kindergarten through sixth grade.”
“Sidwell Friends?” Dr. Bacon gasped.  “On Wisconsin Avenue?  Have you any idea how much it costs to send a child to that school?”
“The Obamas pay $35,288 per year, each, for Sasha and Malia to attend the Sidwell Friends School, which includes those Middle and Upper Division lunches.  There are some additional charges, of course – textbooks, computers, transportation…”
“Sure!” Dr. Bacon interrupted.  “The Obamas send their kids to an expensive private school.  He’s the president of the United States!  What are you getting at?” 
“He’s a president of the United States,” I reminded him, “whose meddling, holier-than-thou wife wants other people’s children to eat food that tastes like vomit, while her precious babies dine like K Street lobbyists – which, by the way, they may very well grow up to be – that’s what.”
Dr. Bacon blushed deep red.  “I see.  I guess the hypocrisy factor’s pretty large there, isn’t it?  Like Marie Antoinette saying, ‘let them eat cake,’ only Michelle Obama’s saying, ‘let them eat three ounces of dry turkey meat, a pile of steamed, unsalted broccoli, a kitchen spoonful of brown rice and an apple, washed down with half a pint of skim milk.’”
“Actually,” I admonished, “you’re being unfair to Marie Antoinette.  ‘Let them eat cake’ is actually a mistranslation, taken out of context.  She was, in fact, suggesting the peasants eat polenta cake as a substitute for white bread made from wheat.  But one aspect of the situation is both relevant and salient – tell me, Doctor, in terms of the current USDA school lunch mandates, how do those scrumptious Sidwell Friends meals measure up?”
“Well,” he dissembled, “there’s no information about the portion sizes.”
“Assume,” I prodded, “that the portion sizes were adjusted to fall within some reasonable new calorie cap ranges – say, 1,000 calories for a twelfth grader with athletics after school, and the current 850 for some nerd who’s only going to go home and play around with his computer.  What then?”
“Oh, in that case,” Dr. Bacon conceded, “in terms of the content, why yes, those meals meet or exceed all of the USDA nutritional goals.”
“So,” I reasoned, “there are two possible ways to resolve the blatant hypocrisy of Michelle Obama pushing for ‘vomit lunches’ to be served to the children in ordinary schools while her girls enjoy the culinary delights of the menu at Sidwell Friends School.  First, she can direct that whatever the middle or high school children in places like Harlan County, Kentucky, Sharon Spring, Kansas, Laguna Beach, California or Voorheesville, New York are eating for lunch, then Sasha and Malia have to eat that, too.”
“Never going to happen!” Dr. Bacon shouted, flecks of muffaletta flying out of his mouth onto my hand-woven antique silk Persian carpet.  “You know that, for Christ’s sake, Tom!  You’ve met her!  Do you honestly think that…”
“No, of course I don’t,” I assured him.  “We both know better than that.  So, the other alternative is…”
“No, no…” he protested.
“The USDA revises their guidelines to simply state…”
“You can’t be serious!” Dr. Bacon wailed.
“… that whatever Sasha and Malia get for their school lunch, every other kid in public school in America gets it, too.”
“Oh my God!” Bacon exclaimed.  “Serve those… sons and daughters of… Jesus… factory workers, coal miners, bus drivers, garbage collectors… and who knows what else… the same lunch as Sasha and Malia Obama receive at Sidwell Friends School?  That’s… that’s… that’s… I don’t know what the hell that is, but one thing I do know, implementing an initiative like that would cost at least three hundred million dollars a year!  No, make that five hundred million dollars a year!”
“And you are saying, the children of America aren’t worth it?” I challenged.  “You and I both know that five hundred million dollars is nothing more than a rounding error in the Defense Department budget.  And besides, most of the cost you’re worried about is the skilled culinary labor necessary to turn whole grains, fresh fruits, vegetables and nutritious protein sources into delectable cuisine.  Michelle Obama attracts plenty of entertainment star power, doesn’t she?  Why not turn that attractive force toward getting famous world class chefs to design American school lunch menus based on the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids National School Lunch Act Guidelines of 2010 through 2012?”
“Why…” Dr. Bacon murmured, astounded, “now I know what that is… it’s… innovative.”
“Thanks,” I replied.
“No, no,” he fretted, “don’t you understand?  Do you have any concept of how dangerous innovative ideas are in Washington DC?  Surely you must, you’ve been here long enough!”
“I realize what you’re saying,” I assured my guest, “but come now, it’s not as if I were being innovative about banking regulation, taxation, entitlements or national security, is it?  I… ah… let’s make that we – are being innovative about school lunches, and that’s all, sir, school lunches.  That’s like being innovative about wildlife conservation or the designation of historical landmarks – and as such, the potential benefits… to you, for example… outweigh the risks by a wide margin.”
“Gee,” Dr. Bacon inquired in a quivering, uncertain tone, “do you really think so?”
“Make up your own mind,” I suggested.  “Ask yourself – how big an issue are the Tea Party and the Republicans going to make out of what a total hypocrite Michelle Obama is being about this?  Does Barack really want some conservative wiseacre in the House of Representatives accusing him of putting America’s school children on a concentration camp diet, and then reading into the Congressional Record a list of all the tasty dishes Malia and Sasha have been consuming for lunch at Sidwell Friends over the last few weeks?  Consider on your own, what kind of television that might make, and how you might explain your concerns to She Who Scares the Various Products of Nature Out of Those Who Serve the Obama Administration.  And also, ask yourself – if Michelle Obama is going to tell school children how to eat, doesn’t every child in every American school deserve to have the same school lunch as her daughters?”
“Okay,” Dr. Bacon acquiesced as he finished his muffaletta and killed the dregs of his gin and tonic, closed his briefcase, rose and strode toward the door.  “I’ll consider it.  After all, as an expert in nutrition, I know that lunch is one of the most important meals of the day.”