No Food Fight Here: Presidential Candidates Quiet on the Food Policy Front by M.E. Malone

What is it about the presidential campaign trail that compels candidates to chow down on high-fat, high-calorie foods?

Mitt Romney, whose BMI hovers near 25, has waved a paper bag of take-out barbecue food in Illinois, devoured a pulled pork sandwich in South Carolina, and slurped ice cream in New Hampshire in his bid to Photoshop his just-one-of-the-guys image.

Romney gnaws on a pork chop.
Photo by Reuters

Obama, whose BMI is close to 24, has had more than one cheeseburger craving this election year, visiting OMG Burgers in Miami and Five Guys in D.C. He also made a stop for chili dogs in Atlanta and a hot fudge sundae in New Hampshire, while his wife was presumably at home tilling the White House vegetable garden.

Obama loves his burgers.
Photo by Saul Loeb/AFP, Getty Images

But with less than a week to go, the campaign for the top job in the land is hardly shaping up to be a food fight. The candidates are crisscrossing the country talking about middle-class families, but not what’s on their dinner plates or how to create new recipes for trimming fat, sugar and salt from the American family’s diet.

First Lady Michelle Obama’s promotion of anti-obesity measures for children has certainly raised the profile of food choices in America and positioned the White House as more pro-active on food than previous administrations. But when it comes to food policy, the president’s track record is mixed.

Obama is credited with improved regulations that govern the quality of foods fed to public school children, though with demerits for agreeing to a Republican-led effort to include pizza as a vegetable (tomato sauce!) and questions of adequate funding. The US dietary guidelines were updated and we now have the simplified MyPlate, replacing MyPyramid, which many found confusing. The president signed the Food Safety and Modernization Act into law last year – considered the most sweeping changes in food safety laws since before World War II – but the regulations needed to implement the law have yet to appear.

One of the most contentious food battles of the election year is being played out in California, where voters will decide the fate of a first-in-the-nation requirement that genetically modified foods be labeled accordingly. Obama, who supported labeling GMOs during his first campaign, has been silent on the California ballot question.

Romney has had nothing to say on the GMO-labeling plan either and, more generally, has left food policies out of his campaign stump speech. He released his first white paper on agricultural issues just four weeks before Election Day and much of it relates to ethanol, tax relief, and criticism of “overzealous” efforts to extend the Clean Water Act.

He committed one farm faux pas this summer while touring an Iowa cornfield to show his support for small farmers hit by this summer’s drought. As it turns out, his host, Lemar Koethe, is not your typical hayseed. According to Iowa media, Koethe owns 54 corn and soy farms and is a millionaire; hardly the image of a small-town farmer Romney hoped to embrace to counter his elitist image.

In answering questions from the United Fresh Produce Association in September, Romney said his “administration will highlight the importance of healthy eating,” adding that it is not the federal government’s job “to dictate what every American eats.” He also noted that establishing best food safety practices is best left in the hands of industry where there is expertise in the prevention of outbreaks of food-borne illnesses.

As for the farm bill, Romney blames Obama for the legislation’s stall while Obama points to Romney’s running mate, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (BMI 21, in case you’re interested) and fellow House Republicans for holding up the legislation. Obama and Romney, both born in states that don’t have an “official fruit,” also both received a grade of  “B” on their report cards from the Iowa Corn Growers Association based on their answers to questions from the organization about agricultural policy.

The two candidates sparred during their second debate over the growing number of Americans enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is funded through the farm bill. Romney was criticized by fact-checkers for accusing Obama of doubling the number of recipients by removing the work requirement for eligibility. While the growth in numbers were not solely due to work requirement changes initiated on his watch, the number of SNAP recipients has become a barometer of economic policies that has not helped Obama’s campaign.

What we do know is that if cookies are any indication, Michelle Obama’s recipe for white and dark chocolate cookies were more popular than Ann Romney’s M&M-laced treats among 9000 voters in Family Circle magazine’s Presidential Cookie Bake Off. At the BGR burger chain, Obama burgers, inspired by a Chicago hot dog, are currently beating Romney’s hollandaise and lobster burger, and the Obama burrito bowl with chicken teriyaki and pineapple is outselling Romney’s burrito bowl of meatloaf and mashed potatoes at California Tortilla. Election cookies with images of the candidates printed on icing paper with food coloring sold in Oakmont, Pennsylvania, though show Romney in the lead.

Despite their public penchants for meaty foods and ice cream, both men do espouse a healthy lifestyle. Romney doesn’t drink or smoke, eats a lot of fiber according to his doctor, and regularly exercises on an elliptical machine. The president works out at a gym, plays pick-up basketball and eats his broccoli. Finally, it’s November and the voters will decide who’s more fit to be president.

M.E. Malone is a first year student in the FPAN and Master of Public Health programs. During her career at the Boston Globe, she covered state and local government affairs and politics for more than a decade. After two mid-terms, two papers, and a statistics problem set all in the same week, her mind is full but her refrigerator is empty.

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