White potatoes and chocolate milk

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Okay, white potatoes are bad for us, but chocolate milk is a fun way to consume nature's most nearly perfect food, and my kids love it. No, wait, potatoes are good for us; they are one of those original foods our bodies were designed to eat. But, chocolate milk is the last thing we want our children to drink, all that sugar and fat! It's so hard to keep track of what we are supposed to eat. Thank goodness we have 535 of the nation's top dietary experts keeping watch of these things for us, with a little help from the East Wing.

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One of the weightier questions of this summer is whether Congress ought to require the Department of Agriculture to rescind the explicit exclusion of white potatoes from the list of vegetables it authorize as eligible for subsidy or donation under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). This would reverse the 2008 rule, a decision influenced by the Institute of Medicine's recommendation that there was no great deficiency of white potato consumption by pregnant or lactating moms or their infants.

Milk has had its own cross to bear, with criticisms ranging from the fat content of whole milk to whether adults ought to drink milk at all. Throw in a little sugar and chocolate and now you've made matters exponentially worse in the eyes of milk's critics. Since the beginning of the 2012-13 school year, schools that want access to federal school lunch subsidies have been restricted to skim chocolate milk or unflavored milks that are fat-free or lowfat (1 percent). Some school districts banned the use of chocolate milk prior to 2012, but the potential withdrawal of federal funding makes for a tough choice for regular chocolate milk fans in other school districts.

In their 2014 study of 11 schools in Oregon, Cornell University behavioral scientists Drew Hanks, Brian Wansink and David Just found 7 percent of students opted out of school meals after their district banned chocolate milk. Moreover, 29 percent of the milk put on student's trays ended up in the trash. When the decision became chocolate milk vs. no milk, the distinct possibility arose that the desire for better nutrition actually resulted in poorer nutritional choices.

In the wake of widespread complaints, members of Congress have been pondering legislation to relax Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act requirements on caloric, sodium, fat and sugar intake, and, yes, chocolate milk is for some an example of regulation run amok.

Childhood obesity is at alarming proportions. We, as a society, have far too great a tendency to eat too much and exercise too little. The World Health Organization estimates that 87 percent of deaths in the U.S. in 2008 were the result of non-infectious or noncommunicable diseases. Not all of these can be exclusively attributed to lifestyle choices, but lifestyle is a contributing if not leading factor.

Should our food choices be dictated, constrained or otherwise influenced by those 535 dietary experts? Should they be left to unelected government employees, guided by science reduced to the least controversial and broadest agreement? What role should community-elected school boards or the professional managers in schools have in making these decisions? For that matter, what is the authority of mom and dad in guiding their children's food choices?

The fact is recipients of WIC, National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs generally don't have the means to make the best food choices. And, not every mom or dad makes good choices for themselves or for their kids. That challenge is behind the good intentions that led to those programs and keeps them going. The public question really isn't whether our children should drink chocolate milk, or whether we ought to feed mashed potatoes to our infants. Maybe the question is whether the government ought to be obliged to pay for every food if it's going to pay for any food.

In their 1999 paper, University of Maryland policy researchers Douglas Besharov and Peter Germanis stated: "To the extent that WIC is successful, an important explanation could be the nutritional and health counseling that clients receive." In her review at a 2010 Institute of Medicine workshop, Lorene Ritchie of University of California, Berkeley concluded that most studies of WIC nutrition education found significant effects on behavior change and attitudes, while recognizing that rigorous conclusions are hard to draw because of the inherent inability to do controlled experiments.

The famous dictum of 12th-century Sephardic philosopher Maimonides especially applies to these debates: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. In our schools, hospitals and care centers, perhaps we ought to place more emphasis on health and nutrition education and less on giving away fish and then arguing about what kind of fish.

Novakovic is the E.V. Baker Professor of Agricultural Economics at Cornell University.