Outside the Whale: Impound the Pounds

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Starting this school year Massachusetts has enacted a new nutrition law. For parents it means you can no longer celebrate your kid’s birthday by sending in 24 cupcakes to her class, but you are still free to pack as much junk as you like in your child’s personal lunchbox.

Operation Impound the Pounds: Zero tolerance for anything over 200 calories ("during school hours")

The law impacts all vending machines and a la carte foods. Apparently the state backed off when it came to fundraisers on school property, and so the fat snack prohibitions are only in effect a half hour before school starts and a half hour after school ends — that way goodies can still be sold at school events.

Canton School Committee Chairman John Bonnanzio was beside himself with disbelief when details of the law were brought before the committee in May and again in July by the “Wellness Committee.” He was surprised by the lack of parent “kick back” by this “overreach of government.” (He had expressed similar concerns in his “cookie” speech at the CHS graduation last spring.) He got some support by School Committee members, who mentioned that while there is this great concern around cookies, soda and cupcakes, kids can order hotdogs every day and are served chicken nuggets for lunch and other highly processed foods.

Ready for the chairman’s cynicism by their second exchange, the school nurse leader and the school wellness coordinator wielded the “shame on you” finger like a magic wand upon Bonnanzio as only those employed by a school system can, dubbing him a “Debbie Downer.” The spell had its intended effect, and the chairman found himself apologizing for his poor attitude. But the righteous march of protecting public health may have unintended consequences, and the recoiling instincts of Bonnanzio and others like him around these laws may well be justified.

In his book “Tyranny of Health — doctors and the regulation of lifestyle,” Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick warned a decade ago of a world view toward authoritarian health policies. In his words, we are pushing toward “miserable abstinence.” Nobody embodies the Nanny Government more than New York’s Mayor Bloomberg with his recent ban on the super-sized soda. His supporters have rightly pointed out that soda is cheap, so if prices are brought up by 20 percent but you double the size, people think they’re getting a bargain. If government can’t step in where profit comes at the expense of public health, what good is government at all?

Thus we are back to Bonnanzio’s shame. Where is the balance between public health and personal choice? Society has decided wearing a seatbelt is not a personal choice, but a law. It’s still legal to smoke cigarettes, but know you’ll be segregated like a contagion. And though we now look at alcoholics as having a disease, we are moving toward thinking of those with heart disease as lacking self-control. There is something bizarre about this safety and fitness march, turning us into a white-knuckled culture where we fear everything from food to sex. Big Brother doesn’t always know best, and though there are no simple answers, the waggers of the shame finger would be well served to have at least some suspicions when it comes to these goodie two-shoes policies.

There is something parsimonious about these health laws, measuring pleasure by the ounce, bubble wrapping our children and helicoptering over what lawmakers see as inept parents. They feel life can only be served a drip at a time, cautiously — perhaps agonizingly — until there is simply too little of it to satisfy a person with any thirst for it.

Schools have always been the trial balloon for warrantless searches, separation of church and state, freedom of speech, and now social engineering. School children can’t vote and are subjected to the whims of irrational policy every day. It’s why we couldn’t wait to graduate. So we could be free of these arbitrary restrictions and live our own lives as adults.

But government may soon be our new principal, all of our surroundings a kind of rule-ridden school grounds, and we reduced to children. In the words of the U.S. Circuit Court, we can have “no reasonable expectation of privacy,” and so how long will it be before monitoring technology is used to fine-tune our personal habits and penalize us when we disobey?

Built-in GPS knows how fast we go on York Street and Route 138. Our cars know if we buckle. How long do you think it will be before our car computers upload our driving data to our insurance companies and our rates are based on our habits and not on actual accidents or speeding tickets? How far off are we from having our health premiums impacted by how much soda is on our Stop & Shop cards or by how much booze is associated with our IDs? Or by how many times a year our YMCA card gets swiped?

The finger of shame will point and say how you shouldn’t be speeding anyway. How you should buckle up. Exercise more. How dangerous York Street is. That soda is no good for you and maybe you do buy too much wine. That if you have nothing to hide — if you behaved how your parents, teachers, bosses, fitness coach, and government tell you to behave — you wouldn’t mind being monitored and you’d be safe and healthy.

The School Committee had expressed reasonable frustration when they talked about needing to become food police while state mandates didn’t allow enough time for students to sit and eat, forcing kids to grab unhealthy snack food. It’s a brilliant observation. Aren’t most of our bad choices the consequence of too little time? Whether it be fast food, fast driving, or multi-tasking? But cutting back on the entrenched eight-plus-hour work day isn’t even in our consciousness.

By their third encounter on August 30, the School Committee said they could live with the new regulations and apologized as a group to the school nurse. At the end of the day, how much does it matter if kids can no longer buy cookies or high-calorie food? But we as adults should look to the schools as our canary in the coal mine. In the coming years, watch for changes in your vending machine at work, how the contents of your lunchbox is judged, or for a nearly mandated exercise program. Our BMI can easily be interpreted as the literal embodiment of our self-discipline and work ethic — the new gold standard for promotion and the modern measure by which our character is judged.

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