2014 FIRST PLACE ESSAY

Food Fight! Give Me Liberty, Not a Nanny

by Madeline Peltzer, Age 15
Submitting Teacher: Dawn Peltzer


I recently spent a week at our state capitol with a conservative organization that teaches students about government, political leadership, and the value of liberty. To illustrate how a bill becomes law, each Student Representative wrote a bill to present to the mock legislature. As I read the bills assigned to my committee, I was struck by how many students proposed government solutions to issues that could have been addressed by private means. Unfortunately, many adult politicians legislate with the same mindset and seek to use their resources, powers, and position to solve problems in areas government should not be involved. When government becomes an active player in people's affairs, it weakens families, communities, and ultimately the nation. Rather, the best role for government is when it creates a path for citizens to resolve issues themselves.

John Stossel examines food regulations and the proper role of government in his television special "Myths, Lies, and Complete Stupidity." He gives examples of government busy-bodies who increasingly dictate Americans' food and drink choices based on their personal agendas and makes the case that we do not need costly and ineffective government interference to help us eat wisely.

Stossel shows how New York City officials have become notorious for regulating and banning items they deem too salty or sugary or that contain trans-fat. These self-appointed nutrition czars also pressure new mothers to choose nursing over bottle-feeding by locking away hospital formula and withhold food donations to homeless shelters because officials cannot assess their salt, fat, and fiber content. Most recently, Fox News reported that New York Senator Charles Schumer is pressing the Food and Drug Administration to ban a chemical used in fast-food bread despite his admission that no link exists between the chemical and cancer and that the FDA approves of it. "In a day where cancer rates are rising," he said, "you have to be careful."

The food police do not contain themselves to New York. One Chicago public school banned homemade lunches because the principal says it is more nutritious for children to eat cafeteria food. Meddling lawmakers in Southern Los Angeles prohibit new fast-food chains from opening because of the area's high obesity rate. Medical commentators in a recent issue of Nature argue that sugar is as toxic and addictive as alcohol and tobacco and call for federal regulation to control its distribution. Fellow advocates believe this is possible if enough local governments continue to enact sugar-curbing policies. The root of this high-handed mindset is summed up by New York State assemblyman Felix Ortiz in a 2012 Stossel: "I'm saving your life and lives of the people of this nation."

Ortiz may mean well, but good intentions are not enough. Legislators must consider the unintended consequences they create every time they impose new policies. The cost of compliance is passed onto the public who get fewer choices, bureaucratic red-tape discourages entrepreneurs, and the incentive to invent and innovate is squelched. Worse, government's coercive power to tax, regulate, ban, and license tempts them to make blanket decisions for everyone.

Even more detrimental than economic repercussions are the moral ones. Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute says when paternalistic lawmakers impose their assistance upon society, the businesses, workers, families, and religious institutions are stripped of their vitality. If citizens must look to the nanny state for direction, an unhealthy culture of dependency will develop and the qualities we love about Americans will vanish. What has traditionally made America unique is the overarching principle that people best thrive when government leaves most of the power and decisions to individuals.

That principle is well demonstrated with regard to nutrition and the abundance of resources available in the free market. Television, internet, dieticians, and bookstores teem with a world of information.

My family's favorite resources are the best-selling handbooks Eat This, Not That!, a witty reference that utilizes photographs and information snippets to reveal a restaurant's healthiest choices on the left page and the worst on the right. This not only equips customers to make nutritious decisions, but also holds restaurants accountable for their menus. For instance, after receiving repetitive grades of "F" from ETNT for withholding nutrition facts, Quiznos, Red Lobster, and Olive Garden disclosed their information, and it did not take a government mandate to do it. Jamba Juice discontinued a smoothie after customers complained about its inclusion on "ETNT's Worst Foods in America" list. Carl's Jr. and Hardee's joined forces with ETNT to create a turkey burger after many of their items landed on the "Not That!" page. The addition was so popular they added several new variations. ETNT has also published a Supermarket Survival Guide designed to make grocery shopping cheaper and healthier and Cook This, Not That! which teaches people how to prepare more nutritious, economical versions of restaurant dishes.

The free market is doing a fine job of educating and informing the public and is having a positive effect on the food industry, but in the end, "people must be free to live life as they see fit and to be responsible for the consequences of their actions," writes Murray. "It is not the government's job to protect people from themselves."

This idea became obvious to me that day at the capitol as I listened to my committee debate a student's bill. It prompted me to ask the group whether it was our job as Representatives to address this issue and potentially burden the public with an unnecessary law. Citizens could take care of this concern on their own. This line of thinking immediately resonated with everyone, and upon reflection our committee ended up vetoing every bill we read. When the other committees heard the news, they were amazed. Why had we not passed any bills? I asked myself why that was a bad thing. It should be considered an accomplishment to prevent bad legislation. My committee said no to bad bills. It is time those serving in our real government did the same.