At an August 2013 press conference, a frustrated President Obama stated, “I don’t know a law that solves a problem 100 percent.” He was referencing the painful fight over immigration reform. But food reformers should take his comment to heart. There’s no such thing as a perfect food policy or solution and those who pursue perfection are not only destined to fail, they may also unintentionally harm the cause in the process.
Two cases in point: In 2010, after years of meetings, strategy sessions, public relations efforts, lobbying and cajoling, federal school meal standards were finally updated to ensure our children were being served healthy meals during breakfast and lunch. At around the same time, a policy setting strong nutrition standards for “competitive” school foods (usually unhealthy snacks and sugary beverages) was passed by Congress.
National reform on this scale is a Herculean effort that literally took decades to accomplish. As both measures were hammered out, amended and debated, the food reformers involved in the negotiations were at times forced to compromise, sometimes painfully. Of course, opponents of reform were forced to compromise, sometimes quite painfully, as well.
But here is what concerns us. After both federal meal standards and competitive school guidelines were finalized and announced, some food reformers unleashed a barrage of criticism. Without ever acknowledging that very significant gains had been made, they instead focused only on the weaknesses of the finished products.
To be clear, we’re not advocating self-censorship in the food reform community. Flaws in any legislation must be discussed so we can learn from the process. For example, we all agree that pizza should not be considered a school food “vegetable” to appease the frozen food industry and most of us decry the outsized influence of the dairy lobby, which ensures that sugary dairy products remain on the menu in schools. Similarly, we know of no advocates who are happy that some non-nutritious drinks continue to be sold in schools as competitive beverages.
Even as these very real disappointments should be openly discussed, the incredible gains that have been made should be celebrated. And the advocates who led the charge–those who worked hard at the negotiating table to get these policies and guidelines passed–deserve our praise rather than the suggestion that they “caved in” to industry demands.
Food reformers (all reformers, actually) seem to fall into two camps–the realists and the idealists–in terms of how they approach policy change. Realists see the weaknesses in new regulations but they also weigh those defects against the old regime. Idealists, on the other hand, are sometimes so attached to their laudable vision of a perfect world that agreeing to anything less is viewed as a defeat.
While this may be an overgeneralization in some cases, we’ve noted that many idealists, though respected and knowledgeable, lack real-world experience in steering legislation from introduction to implementation, or in overseeing other kinds of reform. Until you’ve gotten your hands dirty in this way, it’s sometimes hard to understand why the negotiating table will never yield a perfect result.
It gets even more interesting when I am cast as the one to explain why a idealistic proposal may not be quite as simple as it might seem. Human emotions can bubble up and I've sometimes been cast as a bad guy in the process while attempting to explain "Yes, it sure does sound like a simple idea, but..." . There are instances where we've come up with solutions for the obstacles, but it almost always is a bit more complex than originally thought.
Another challenge in the whole process is that there are a lot of different viewpoints about what should be done, both from idealists and realists...who's idea of what is "right" for all children is the correct view?