Rodney’s willing helpers

If you got involved with politics and follow the twitter or FB account of a provincial House Representative, you know that his or her feed is normally full of cheerful reports of meetings with some nice sounding organizations, with obligatory pictures of your member of congress engaged with the smiling representatives of whatever they represent. Our dear Rodney publishes tons of such little reports, evidences of his busy days in the nation’s capital, or in his beloved district IL-13, bettering the lives of his blessed Illinoisans.

Here’s one of those tweets that caught our attention:

Meeting with the Illinois School Nutrition Association today to discuss ways to improve school lunch and breakfast programs. pic.twitter.com/a3LkgZMbnc— US Rep Rodney Davis (@RodneyDavis) April 4, 2017

 

(Rodney published it a few days ago. The blessed Illinoisans responded to their Representative’s tweet with predictable flow of contempt: most were attacking #TrumpBudget; one, for changers, the #BigGovernment. So much for our cherished regional sport, – Rodney pretends he cares about the citizenry; the citizenry tries in vain to communicate something to Rodney. Democracy in action, in case you’re at a loss as to how to describe this charade.)

What made this particular Twitter thread different, is that one of the women in the picture, Meghan Gibbons, was actually replying to some of the criticisms, offering relatively wonky sounding support to our dear Rodney. Pretty unusual! So we decided to get to the bottom of it.

To start, we ventured to find out where Rodney actually stands on school lunches. The Big Government helped: a search in the database of Congress returned two bills sponsored by Mr. Davis dealing with school meals. Both are telling.

The first bill, introduced in Fall ’13 when Rodney was a freshman in the House, elected by a thin margin and much in need to be noticed by the Party elders, is a perfect example of artless trolling. Called School Nutrition Fairness Act, it requests all meals served in the White House’ and Department of Agriculture’ cafeterias to be “in compliance with the nutrition requirements for school meals“. Eat that, stupid Obama! No more steak tartars or french fries for you! (One can just see Rodney and his staffers giggling and patting themselves on the back, admiring their smug wit.)

Well, you’ll say, whatever, harmless nonsense, nothing but innocent waste of our taxes and opportunity to get anything real done. No big deal. The bill would surely die in a committee. (It did.)

OK. We give you that. The “Fairness Act” was a senseless attempt of legislative satire at our expense. Let’s have a look at the other school lunches bill from Rodney.

This bill sounds like pure spite: Rodney wants to forbid the US government to require schools to have less sodium and more whole grains in kids’ meals it pays for. Why, you might ask? (Unless, of course, you are dead sure that the US government has no business in providing kids with lunches to begin with.)

Let’s remember the context. In 2010 the Congress passed, and Obama signed the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act. This law stipulated many things, in particular that the food should be whole wheat rich, and low on sodium (read, salt, – and low meant about what the dietitians asked for, that is around 2/3 of the medium consumption in the US).

And the food industry hated the Act. They love the ability to sell millions of meals daily with customers conveniently herded – no need to advertise! – to school cafeterias, with payments secured by the US budget, sure. But the thought of retooling their production lines to fit the new regulations was driving them nuts. And this is not because they are bad folks, those guys in the food industry. No, just the simple logics of profit maximization forced them to hate any regulation affecting their margins. And, by God, they needed salt in their food: again, not because they are evil. It just so happens it is hard to make cheap food tasty, and salt masks, taste bud-wise, more or less anything. (In general, the magic triad of salt/sugar/fat is not a conspiracy to keep us fat, but just a cheap way to make junk taste palatable).

Anyway, the industry hated these new regulations, and was pressuring anyone willing to listen to keep pressure on the administration, to slow down their implementation. The money from junk food industry was flowing in, Fox News was lamenting yet another loss of individual freedom to evil government (and plight of poor kids who preferred staying hungry to eating saltless foods), and Rodney, never an enemy to junk food, bravely stepped forward.

So far, so good, – everyone is performing an assigned role: the industry pushes buttons, robotic Rodney performs his unsophisticated dance, – but here’s the puzzle: what’s the role of the nice ladies and the gent in the picture: what message of the Illinois School Nutrition Association got lost in Rodney’s depressing office? Their presence was confusing to many: school nutritionists are more or less by definition on the progressive side, they want good for our kids. What’s with them praising Rodney?

 

Here’s the interesting part of the story starts: the one of SNA, the national School Nutrition Association and its state chapters. The association looks on the surface to be a normal professional organization. Folks in schools feeding our kids, they need a go-to place where they can get help with regulators, legislators, or just some info.

So it was, until about four years ago. Then something changed: the organization was effectively taken over by the industry. They changed their positions dramatically, essentially overnight, turning on their former allies. As it is often the case with the professional and trade unions, it is hard to pinpoint exactly how this happened (this is, of course, the main problem with the unions: created from below, they immediately become centralized monsters, with oblique decision making and obscure policy setting mechanisms): but in corporate-speak, it looks like an adversarial takeover. The sponsors of SNA – the usual culprits like General Mills, Kraft Foods etc, – managed to persuade the SNA leadership to take their position on the quality of school lunches that addresses their bottom line.

Again, the food industry is not intrinsically evil (they feed us, after all!). They, I am sure, are genuinely in favor of our kids eating healthy foods. It is just that the logics of corporate welfare forces them to act against what is good for us, as citizenry. Where their interests are aligned with those of population as a whole – say, the idea that the government should spend taxpayers money to purchase from them, – they are fervently progressive, and are opposing the budget cuts from the school meals programs.

Which leads to the main point of this post. The civil society has many components, – government, press, organizations, local and professional. And all of them are affected by the business interests. If we are not vigilant, the corporate world – having nothing malicious but the concerns of its profits in mind, – will gladly create an alternative universe for us, with not just fake news, but also fake professional organizations, fake science, fake anything.

So stay on alert. When you see National Review (the Pravda of the US right wing: if you need to quickly learn their baseline position on an issue, NR is your go-to place) refers to SNA as “School Nutritionists“, doubt it. Check what the academic community says (but be careful here, too). Investigate. It is boring and time consuming, but necessary when many people work so hard to obfuscate.

There are some reliable markers, though. If Rodney gets a praise from someone – mark it phony. Overwhelming chances are, it is.

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