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Presidents and the politics of food

3 min read

Restaurant and Foodservice

Generations of consumers who grew up on burgers and hot dogs downed at July 4 barbecues came to see the dishes as national symbols, as American as apple pie — and presidential politics.

Former President Bill Clinton’s penchant for Big Macs was satirized on “Saturday Night Live” more than once. But times have changed — these days, Clinton fights off heart disease with a vegan diet, as he explained in a CNN interview last year. President Barack Obama, criticized in his first campaign for smoking the occasional cigarette, is a rail-thin man who has been photographed eating hot dogs with British Prime Minister David Cameron and cheeseburgers with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Restaurants honored with a presidential visit can and do relish the stories long after the final flash of the camera. Now, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is pushing for an end to the photo ops, at least the ones that depict hot dogs, burgers, cheese steaks and other processed meat products being consumed.

The Washington, D.C.-based group, whose stated mission is to promote preventative medicine and ethical standards in medical research on people and animals, made the news this year for a billboard campaign with the blunt slogan, “Hot Dogs Cause Butt Cancer.” Today, the group plans to make public a petition pushing for the end to photo ops with the president eating fatty foods that have been linked to growing rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers, as reported in several media outlets including USA Today and The Huffington Post.

The organization has been criticized for couching its animal rights agenda in health terms, as the Los Angeles Times points out in this Booster Shots blog post, which also makes the point that Obama’s meaty public meals show him as “everyman” and help him ward off critics who would paint him as an elitist.

In food, as in politics, the spectrum of opinions on how to behave is wide and includes a multitude of voices, most of which fall somewhere between the hard-core carnivores and the devoted vegans. Some of us cling to eating habits and political views learned in childhood; others find that our choices change over time, as we experience more of the world and learn to think for ourselves. And none of us are strangers to mixed messages in the media, from magazines that run chocolate cake recipes followed by articles on dieting to pictures of the first lady touting healthy eating from the White House garden while her husband grabs a cheeseburger with the president of Russia.

Are the images contradictory or are they just snippets of a much bigger picture? Even in her quest to stamp out the scourge of childhood obesity, first lady Michelle Obama is a proponent of a balanced diet that includes room for the occasional order of fries and other treats. The growing availability of meat-free options, smaller portions and better-for-you dishes at restaurants may sway more Americans to eat a healthier diet, just as the USDA’s MyPlate symbol that replaces the meatier food pyramid may help consumers make better choices.

Would those measures be more effective if future presidential food photo ops were limited to the salad bar? You tell me.

Image credit: Mental Art via iStockphoto