Blog No. 30. A Good Day at the White House: “My Brother’s Keeper” and Food Labeling.

The Obama Administration has not had many good days in quite a while, and with the arrival of the crisis in Ukraine, it may not have many for some time. Yet last Thursday, February 27, just before Vladimir Putin invaded Crimea, it was a day at the White House that deserves to be remembered with favorable nods to both the President and First Lady.

For his part, President Obama spoke eloquently of the circumstances of black and Hispanic young men and announced a new initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper,” to address those circumstances. Later that day, Michelle Obama appeared with the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, and the Secretary of Health and Human Services, to announce proposed new rules for food labeling, a project that she had been working on for several years. Each announcement, we believe, was one that Republicans can applaud (or at least quietly approve).

My Brother’s Keeper

The President described the challenges of young African-American and Latino men in unflinching terms. And in doing so, he emphasized, as conservatives often do, the vital role of fathers:

If you’re African-American, there’s about a one-in-two chance you grow up without a father in your house. Too, if you’re Latino, you have about one-in-four chance.

We know boys who grow up without a father are more likely to be poor and as a black student you are less likely to read as proficiently in the fourth grade.

By the time you reach high school, you are far more likely to have been suspended or expelled. There’s a higher chance you end up in the criminal justice system. And a far higher chance that you are the victim of a violent crime.

Fewer black and Latino men participate in the labor force, compared to young white men. And all of this translates into higher unemployment rates and poverty rates as adults.

The President made it clear that his initiative was not a large and expensive government program. Rather, it was a program that will be carried out largely by foundations, businesses and community leaders. According to a White House fact sheet, the effort will have a broad range, encompassing “early child development and school readiness, parenting and parent engagement, 3rd grade literacy, educational opportunity and school discipline reform, interactions with the criminal justice system, ladders to jobs and economic opportunity and healthy families and communities.”

Perhaps the most significant role of the federal government will be similar to one that previously urged with respect to Pre-K education:

–Create an Administration-wide “What Works” online portal to disseminate successful programs and practices that improve outcomes for boys and young men of color.

–Develop a comprehensive public website, to be maintained by the Department of Education, that will assess, on an ongoing basis, critical indicators of life outcomes for boys and young men of color in absolute and relative terms.

Indeed, we believe that monitoring and evaluating local programs, and effectively communicating the results, is a vitally important function that the government should undertake in many different contexts.  Inasmuch as federal mandates often prove expensive for the states and encumber them with layers of bureaucracy, the federal government’s first priority should perhaps be to assure that successful techniques or approaches developed in one state will be readily available for its neighbors to analyze and adapt. If that is accomplished, the age of information technology will have created “Federalism for the 21st Century.”

The President also expressed a value cherished by conservatives – personal responsibility. After noting the need for help from government, business, and communities, he spoke to young men of color directly:

But you have got responsibilities too. And I know you can meet the challenge, and many of you already are, if you make the effort. It may be hard, but you will have to reject the cynicism that says the circumstances of your birth or society’s lingering injustices necessarily define you and your future.

It will take courage, but you will have to tune out the naysayers who say the deck is stacked against you, you might as well just give up or settle into the stereotype. It’s not going to happen overnight, but you’re going to have to set goals, and you’re going to have to work for those goals. Nothing will be given to you.

President Obama’s speech had a note of poignancy when he recalled some of the pitfalls of his own youth:

I didn’t have a dad in the house. And I was angry about it, even though I didn’t necessarily realize it at the time. I made bad choices. I got high without always thinking about the harm that it could do. I didn’t always take school as seriously as I should have. I made excuses. Sometimes I sold myself short.

Even apart from such personal details, the speech was in part a lecture that most of us (mostly white) Republicans would not be comfortable presenting to a black and Latino audience or be able to give effectively. That is all the more reason why we can and should support the substance of the President’s initiative.

FDA Labeling

The initiative undertaken by Michelle Obama with respect to food labeling may at first not appear as dramatic as the President’s, yet it too was significant. Many conservatives have a visceral reaction against the “The R Word” (Regulation), but we still recognize that some regulations are necessary or useful. Most of us probably put food labeling in the latter category and also believe that if food labels are required, they should be as informative and helpful to consumers as possible.

While the proposed changes in labeling are not radical, it took ten years for them to emerge from the FDA and reportedly did so only after repeated prodding by Ms. Obama and her staff. The principal changes are that calories are shown in a more readable font, amounts of any added sugar must be shown, and more realistic calculations of “serving sizes” are required. (For example, the serving size listed on cartons of ice cream, currently a half-cup, would be increased to one cup.)Nutrition Label

Dr. David A, Kessler, FDA Commissioner under the George H. W. Bush Administration, emphasized the importance of the additional sugar labeling in view of the health implications of sugar, and he called the proposed changes “one of the most important public health upgrades in this decade.”

The proposed labels have been published for comment and it has been reported that the grocery industry may oppose or seek to modify the changes.  However any such matters are ultimately resolved, the First Lady deserves credit for having gotten the process started.

5 thoughts on “Blog No. 30. A Good Day at the White House: “My Brother’s Keeper” and Food Labeling.

  • Hey Doug, I agree with Ellie. balanced and objective. good work, good writing…I am reminded of a time in New York when one would often read balance and objective points of view from either party, a time when we had great senators and statesmen.

  • It is a pleasure to read something positive about the leadership. Your blogs are balanced and objective. Good job, Doug.

  • I agree. While the downward revision on youthful obesity is encouraging , the price we pay for over consumption is not sustainable. Tying into a recent post I am afraid we are becoming fat , dumb and unhappy

  • Doug,

    Both your praises of the Obamas seem valid. I look forward to seeing the results turning out positive, we will see!

    The FDA labels WILL happen and soon.

    The advice to the young men hopefully will evolve but will take much more time.

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