Playing politics with our children's health

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No less important are the recommendations made by the IOM on school nutrition, which focus on reducing our nation’s childhood obesity problem.   Here too, the IOM relied on the best scientific evidence that will result in the best health outcomes for our nation's children.

It is troubling to watch politicians take recommendations based on the best science, claim they are flawed, and then argue that their politically-motivated solutions are better than the ones the IOM has to offer.  Such are the arguments being made by Senator Collins, claiming that the IOM recommendation to moderate the number of servings of French fries and potatoes in schools, driven by how potatoes are prepared and the need to get kids to eat a wider variety of vegetables in schools, is not sound nutritional advice. 

The conclusion of the IOM on potatoes is simple, as the report states, [students] need more vegetables at lunch but starchy vegetables [potatoes] served less often.  These conclusions, based on science, should be respected, accepted, and implemented.  Not implementing these recommendations, or altering the IOMs recommendations based on politics, undermines Congress' reputation and the faith of the American public in government.  If Senator Collins succeeds at overturning the recommendations of the IOM — and USDA — on school nutrition on the Senate floor, the credibility and effectiveness of evidence-based policy will the threatened.  It shows the public that special interests, in this case the potato industry, trumps science and our children's health.

The IOM is currently involved in a vast array of complex health issues that will affect each of our lives in the future; issues from breast cancer to Lyme disease.  The integrity of their recommendations to our nation’s policymakers should not be tainted by politics.  No one in Maine would appreciate a U.S. Senator from another state using politics to alter and undermine recommendations based on the best science on the safety of vaccines we give to children, the health of veterans returning from war, or best practices in covering treatment of traumatic brain injuries. 

This time it is the link between obesity and over-consumption of starchy potatoes, but more broadly, it is also about ensuring that we maintain the integrity of our nation's health policy.  Senator Collins, well intentioned as she may be in protecting Maine’s potato industry, should not play politics with our children's health and hold herself up as more of an expert than the nation’s leading expert on nutrition.  Instead, she should work with USDA and start planning for the implementation of these science-based nutrition standards when they are finalized.

Dr. Jonathan Shenkin is a pediatric dentist in Augusta, Maine and on the faculty of Health Policy, Health Services Research and Pediatric Dentistry at the Boston University School of Dental Medicine.

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