A nutrition group learns what I learned nearly 3 years ago

The Washington Post reported that the School Nutrition Association “has done an about face” on the First Lady’s school nutrition program because children throw away too much of the healthy stuff, wasting lots of money.

I learned this three years ago when McDonald’s offered a healthier Happy Meal.

Hypothesis testing

The New York Times has written a follow-up to a piece I wrote in 2010 on Michelle Obama’s food desert hypothesis.

From the article:

It has become an article of faith among some policy makers and advocates, including Michelle Obama, that poor urban neighborhoods are food deserts, bereft of fresh fruits and vegetables.

But two new studies have found something unexpected. Such neighborhoods not only have more fast food restaurants and convenience stores than more affluent ones, but more grocery stores, supermarkets and full-service restaurants, too. And there is no relationship between the type of food being sold in a neighborhood and obesity among its children and adolescents.

Too bad the article didn’t mention that our government passed a $4.5 billion bill based on this incorrect hypothesis. That’s money we won’t get back. It also created a bureaucracy that will not go away — no matter how ineffective it is.  Who cares if it works?  It’s for the kids, right?

This is a good example of the ineffective feedback loops on government programs and why we should be resistant to create new government programs.

Had Michelle Obama started a private charity to address her hypothesis, people could give what they want. When the information came out that that hypothesis may not be accurate and the charity doesn’t actually solve the problem, people would give less and the charity would disappear. That’s a good feedback loop. When something doesn’t work, it goes away.

Put the program in government and it won’t disappear whether it works or not.

Government doesn’t have all the answers. I do.

Please watch this short video of Michelle Obama talking about her health campaign.

Notice the First Lady starts by saying:

Let’s Move [her health campaign that is changing what’s in school lunches] isn’t about telling people what to do, because government doesn’t have all the answers.

Then she goes on to say:

The parents have to make some changes at home. They need the information to be able to make those choices. They need to have access to affordable food.

I guess the government doesn’t have all the answers, but the First Lady does. She just needs government to help her force her answers on the rest of us, or at least the ones who disagree with her.

Just what we need

In this video, Michelle Obama first softens us up by telling us that it is parents’ responsibility to ensure their kids are healthy.  I agree with that.

At 38 seconds in, though, she begins to make the case that “we can’t just leave it up to the parents”,  “we, as a nation, have a responsibility as well”.

Her case for is that kids spend so much time in schools.

The caption on the screen says that this legislation will give the USDA authority to set school nutrition standards for food and vending machines.

I disagree with the first lady.  We, as a nation (which I take her to mean Federal government), have no responsibility to ensure kids are healthy.  She was correct in the first part of her video.  That’s a choice to be made by the parents and the kids and their private doctors.  Nobody else  needs to be involved in that.

For those who send kids to a local public school, the parents’ responsibility doesn’t stop when the kids leave their sight.  We certainly don’t need standards set by the USDA.  Haven’t we learned our lesson? We shouldn’t rely on such sweeping government standards.  Government can be wrong.  I had to unlearn the government’s food pyramid to lose weight.  When I learned about it in school, I assumed the government knew what it was doing.  Turns out I and the government were wrong.  I learned information from private sources that helped me  lose the weight and keep it off now for almost 10 years.

If parents have an issue with what cafeterias serve, they should choose to pack their kids lunches or take it up with the PTA and local cafeteria management.  There’s no need for the Federal government to get involved.

To use an Obama phrase, “Let’s be clear,”  this is Michelle’s pet project to leave her mark so she can add it to her resume and remind us from here on how she fought for kids health.

Most people will applaud that, not realizing that all she did was convince Congress to pick our pockets to fund a priority that we should be doing ourselves and to fund a government bureaucracy that will likely be difficult to get rid of and may cause some sort of unintended and widespread damage (again, thanks food pyramid).

If Michelle Obama would like to leave a mark that will actually help kids get healthy, I suggest considering private solutions.  Perhaps she could use her First Lady clout to establish a private, voluntarily funded charity to educate parents on how to make healthy snacks and meals on a budget or teach activities that parents can do with their children to keep them active.   Maybe the charity can also do things like help sponsor sports leagues, provide swim lessons to kids whose parents can’t afford it or provide bike riding lessons, helmets and bikes to children.

At the very least, test your program on a small level, track the results and see if it makes any difference whatsoever and doesn’t do damage.  Then, if everything seems good, roll it out.

Instead, Obama takes a page out of the Teddy Kennedy playbook.  Force us to fund what will turn into a highly ineffective  and perhaps damaging government activity and then pat yourself on the back.

Will it work? How do we know?

Michelle Obama thinks childhood obesity among poor children is the result of nutritional food deserts in low income urban areas.  To solve the problem, she wants to start a government program and spend $400 million.

To many people, the First Lady’s hypothesis sounds reasonable and her good intentions appear admirable.

But that shouldn’t get in the way of realizing that her hypothesis is just that, a hypothesis.   A hypothesis is an unproven possible explanation (“food deserts”) for the observed phenomenon (“childhood obesity”).   Which means it may be wrong.

I’ve seen people charge critics of Michelle’s hypothesis with “hating”, racism (ad hominem fallacies) and questioning whether her intentions are good (red herring fallacy).  None has anything to do with whether her hypothesis is correct.

I learned about hypothesis in my 7th grade science class.  The fact that many in society can’t seem to recognize and differentiate a hypothesis from facts and good intentions is disappointing.

What’s wrong with asking, will it work and how do we know?

If you were investing your own dollars in a new business venture or donating your money to a new charitable venture,  a sensible person would ask these questions and want to see some evidence that the hypothesis is correct.

If Obama is correct, it seems like it would be easy to find Continue reading

Who’s Fault?

Thanks to Don Boudreaux of Cafe Hayek for steering me to this excellent column by David Harsanyi of the Denver Post, Harsanyi: No Fat Kids! In it he discusses the methods used by politicians to change our lifestyles.

Michelle Obama — no doubt driven by the best of intentions — went on to take food manufacturers to task, asking them to “rethink the products” they produce because business, apparently, should be a clearinghouse for ethically sound groceries rather than a place that manufactures frozen pizza.

The first lady says there is a lack of “accessibility and affordability” as so many Americans reside in “nutritional wastelands” found in urban and rural areas (the latter, one gathers, filled with farms) with no access to supermarkets. “Some 23.5 million Americans — including 6.5 million children — currently live in food deserts,” claims the Let’s Move! site.

Harsayni counters effectively:

This fantasy quickly evaporates when one learns that the average American spends a mere 7 percent of his or her annual income on food (the lowest percentage in the world). That average person has an amazingly rich and diverse array of nutritious foods to [choose] from. In addition, it turns out that that there are very few “food deserts” in states that have the highest levels of obesity in the nation.

In Michelle’s mental model, obesity results from a broken system that spawns food deserts giving people little choice but to eat poorly and gain weight.

This isn’t that hard folks.

Obesity is caused by one thing: choices made my people to consume more calories than needed.  There are not many choices that are more personal than the choice of what we put in our mouths.

I see rampant obesity in the customers of five supermarkets that are near my work and home that I frequent.  None of these supermarkets have a shortage of nutritious foods.  They have plenty of fresh produce, lean meats, canned fruits and vegetables.

If these people have ‘access’ to nutritious food, why do you think they’re obese?  Personal choices.