The debate in the US Congress last winter over whether potatoes should be curbed in school lunches is emblematic of the modern-day crisis in US governance. Lobbyists and other powerful interest groups dominate the tenor of the debate. Unsurprisingly, most Americans have lost confidence in their leaders.
He has climbed the highest peaks in the Rocky Mountains, he is in excellent physical condition, and he could easily serve as the face of a marketing campaign to promote healthy living. In his 14th year in the US Congress, Colorado Senator Mark Udall is standing in front of his seat in the Senate, in the second-to-last row on the Democratic side of the aisle, talking about pizza and French fries. “Let’s be honest,” says Udall. “Anything can be fried or drowned in any number of fats.”
It’s the core of his argument against the new guidelines that President Barack Obama wants to see enacted for school cafeterias. Obama had tried to separate healthy from unhealthy food in school cafeterias and have more vegetables served to students instead of just pizza and French fries. But Udall has gained the support of seven other senators in his bid to block Obama’s guidelines. Instead, he has drafted Senate Amendment 804 to the 2012 spending bill for the Agriculture Department.
Every French fry and every Tater Tot, the 61-year-old politician argues, was once a potato, which makes it a vegetable, just like broccoli, green beans, spinach or carrots. Banning French fries, he says, is basically discriminating against potatoes just because they’re sometimes dipped in oil. At issue, says Udall, is the equal treatment of vegetables, and the fact that even a potato has vitamins, as does pizza — because of the tomato sauce.
On this October afternoon in the US Senate, politicians are seriously addressing the question of whether a distinction should be drawn between French fries and vegetables, and whether French fries and pizza don’t also qualify as vegetables. Former President Ronald Reagan, pandering to the food industry, once tried to declare ketchup a vegetable. But Reagan’s effort failed in Congress. That was 1981 — a different time.
American democracy has always been proud of its balance of powers, the checks and balances of a complex political system that once served as a model for the balancing of political interests and a modicum of reason. It was a system that prevented fanaticism and kept the most feeble-minded efforts in check. And now this? Down with discrimination against the potato?