Thursday, May 29, 2014

House Republicans Pass a Hot Potato on Healthy Federally Subsidized Meals

House Republicans Pass a Hot Potato on Healthy Federally Subsidized Meals

House Republicans Pass a Hot Potato on Healthy Federally Subsidized Meals

Posted: 29 May 2014 11:32 AM PDT

House Appropriators awoke Thursday to an op-ed in the New York Times by Michelle Obama warning them not to pass legislation that she says weakens healthy standards for school lunches passed in 2010. "[S]ome members of the House of Representatives are now threatening to roll back these new standards and lower the quality of food our kids get in school," the First Lady wrote. "They want to make it optional, not mandatory, for schools to serve fruits and vegetables to our kids. They also want to allow more sodium and fewer whole grains than recommended into school lunches."

Unimpressed, the House Appropriations Committee approved the Agriculture Department's fiscal 2015 spending bill, including the controversial changes, by a vote of 31-18. Republicans considered the changes fairly moderate, certainly not as dramatic as what the School Nutrition Association had advocated, according to a GOP aide close to the process, who noted that the bill was passed out of subcommittee unanimously. The SNA has been lobbying to slow down implementation of changes to school lunch rules because of a variety of challenges, such as the cost, the availability in rural areas and the drop off of a million students in the past year—mostly older high school students in urban areas who are going out and buying fast food in the place of the new healthy lunches.

At stake in the House bill are two roll backs. The first is a waiver that would allow schools struggling to meet the new standards an extra year to implement the changes. While this sounds innocuous enough, school budgets are not often clearly defined and it could give schools "the ability to game the system," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told reporters on Wednesday. "Plus it would be complicated to implement. Would the department audit the schools?" More than 30 million children get one or more meals every day as part of the program.

Vilsack noted that 90% of the schools are already in compliance, a high rate for a new program. So to open the door for delays, critics say, could be the first step in dismantling regulations that Republicans have derided as the government acting as a nanny state. Democrats tried to strip the waiver from the bill in Thursday's committee mark up, failing in a vote along party lines.

In contrast, the Senate Appropriations Committee last week rejected blanket waivers in favor of boosting training to help schools come into compliance, provided more flexibility on whole grain standards and, in a victory for the cheese lobby, waived the second and third sodium reduction requirements due to come into effect in 2017 and 2022. The cheese lobby had been concerned that cheese doesn't melt well with less sodium. Health advocates argue that children don't need to be eating pizza and grilled cheese, any way.

The second change in the House bill would allow white potatoes to be included in the Women, Infants and Children program, which helps subsidize fruits and vegetables for low-income families. Up until this point, the program focused on encouraging the purchase of leafy greens and fruits not often bought by low income families. Potatoes are the number one consumed vegetable in the U.S., mostly in fried form. The potato changes were included in the both the House and Senate bills and, in a bow to the potato lobby, would mark "the first time that Congress has interfered with the scientists’ recommendation for the WIC program," as Senator Tom Harkin noted in opposing the Senate version last week.

Potato supporters argue that the USDA says certain nutrients are still lacking in women and children's diets and potatoes carry many of those nutrients. The Senate version limits the potatoes to whole potatoes with no additives such as oil and sugar, essentially barring program participants from using their credits to buy potato products such as French fries and hash browns.

The bill will now head to the House floor for passage before being conferenced with the Senate version where differences over the hot cheesy potato mess will be ironed out. It will surely not be as fun or tasty as it sounds, especially with Michelle Obama checking to make sure everyone's eating their vegetables.

NSA Releases Snowden Email

Posted: 29 May 2014 11:29 AM PDT

The National Security Agency released an email Thursday from Edward Snowden to its Office of General Council.

Snowden has long maintained that he repeatedly alerted supervisors and NSA authorities about concerns with the domestic and international surveillance programs he had come across in his work as a contractor for the agency, an allegation denied by the NSA in the past. NBC News confirmed the existence of the one email on Wednesday.

“NSA has now explained that they have found one e-mail inquiry by Edward Snowden to the Office of General Counsel asking for an explanation of some material that was in a training course he had just completed,” a spokeswoman said Thursday. “The e-mail did not raise allegations or concerns about wrongdoing or abuse, but posed a legal question that the Office of General Counsel addressed. There was not additional follow-up noted. The e-mail will be released later today.”

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney confirmed the planned email release Thursday, saying that there were other avenues to raise concerns at Snowden’s disposal, beyond email, that he did not avail himself of. Following on Snowden’s interview with NBC News, Carney said the U.S. government’s position with respect to him has not changed. “Clemency is not on the table,” he said.

“There are numerous avenues that Mr. Snowden could have used to raise other concerns or whistleblower allegations,” the NSA spokeswoman continued. “We have searched for additional indications of outreach from him in those areas and to date have not discovered any engagements related to his claims.”

The full email:

The Most Surprising Photos of the Month

Posted: 29 May 2014 11:24 AM PDT

This New Mercedes Super Mario Bros. Ad Is Pretty Weird Alright

Posted: 29 May 2014 11:21 AM PDT

This couldn’t be more bizarre, or unexpectedly amusing, or kind of clever if you squint with your brain just so: Mercedes plus Nintendo plus Super Mario Bros. plus a sequence halfway in where that’s all reimagined as a live action thing, complete with realitic flagpole, castle, rocky wasteland and no-legged Goomba.

That Mario’s too tall though. Anyone can see that. And what’s with the lazy because-I’m-bad, Goomba toe-stubbing saunter from the car? What’s the message here, “Mercedes makes you steely-eyed, big-nosed and oblivious”?

From the school of “squirrel!” ad design, it’s hard to know what made Mercedes opt to do this now, with Nintendo’s game system (the Wii U) struggling, if not on the ropes. E3 2014 in a week-and-a-half? Maybe. They probably wanted to get people talking about it. And here we are talking about it.

Watch Mindy Kaling’s Hilarious Harvard Law Graduation Speech

Posted: 29 May 2014 11:17 AM PDT

Harvard welcomed two big names to campus Wednesday for the first part of its graduation ceremony, Class Day. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg addressed the undergraduates, while comedian Mindy Kaling offered wise words to the law school graduates.

Each individual school at Harvard schedules its own Class Day speaker. Another speaker — this year it’s former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg — addresses the entire university during the official commencement ceremony, which takes place today.

Mindy Kaling

The creator and star of The Mindy Project offered an explanation for those who may have been confused as to why a comedian was asked to speak at a serious event: “I know a ton about the law because I sue everybody.”

She went on to predict a bright future for many of the Harvard Law grads:

“With this degree in hand, most of you will go on to the noblest pursuits, like helping a cable company acquire a telecom company. You will defend BP from birds. You will spend hours arguing that the well water was contaminated well before the fracking occurred. One of you will sort out the details of my prenup. A dozen of you will help me with my acrimonious divorce. And one of you will fall in love in the process. I’m talking to you, Noah Feldman.” (Feldman is a professor at Harvard Law.)

Sheryl Sandberg

The Facebook COO indirectly referenced her book Lean In during her speech, saying “women around the world connected with it. That book, of course, was called Fifty Shades of Grey.” More seriously, Sandberg talked about the importance of honesty:

“I want to put some pressure on you to acknowledge the hard truths, not shy away from them and when you see them to address them. The first time that I spoke out about what it was like to be a woman in the workforce was less than five years ago. That means for 18 years from where you sit to where I stand, my silence implied that everything was okay. You can do better than I did.”

But she didn’t hesitate to conclude with a zinger: “Tomorrow, you get something that Mark Zuckerberg does not have: a Harvard degree.” (Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard.)



You Say Potato, Mrs. Obama. I Say, Please Stop Micromanaging Our Diets and Our Schools.

Posted: 29 May 2014 11:03 AM PDT

If you've ever wondered just where the role of government ends and where the ability of adults to choose things for themselves and their children begins, don't bother. The answer, at least according to First Lady Michelle Obama, is nowhere.

Marching under the banner of Science with a capital S, Mrs. Obama believes the federal government should be able to tell you what to eat. Or, more precisely, not eat. At least if you're poor enough to be on relief or if you're remanded to the custody of a K-12 public school.

Writing in The New York Times, Mrs. Obama warns that "right now, the House of Representatives is considering a bill to override science by mandating that white potatoes be included on the list of foods that women can purchase using WIC dollars."

Don't get the wrong idea, though. Mrs. Obama agrees that "there is nothing wrong with potatoes." It's just that, according to the Institute of Medicine (a.k.a. "science,") the "low-income women and their babies and toddlers" served by the WIC program would be better off if they chowed down on "nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables."

When it comes to schoolkids, Mrs. Obama is just as emphatic that decisions are best made in Washington, rather than in the countless cafeterias of the nation's 100,000 public schools. Some House members, she writes, "want to make it optional, not mandatory, for schools to serve fruits and vegetables to our kids. They also want to allow more sodium and fewer whole grains than recommended into school lunches."

The First Lady believes that the various programs she's championed over the past few years (such as Let's Move!, which hectors kids to exercise) are producing "glimmers of progress" in the War on Fat People, especially among children ages two to five years old. The fact is, however, that there is no clear link between any of the programs she promotes and the trends she applauds.

According to a new Centers for Disease Control study, the obesity rate among kids that age is 8 percent, down from 14 percent in 2003. That's all well and good, but the authors caution that one year doesn't make a trend, especially since that group makes up "a tiny fraction" of the population. Indeed, the same report also notes that obesity rates among Americans 19 years and younger had already stopped climbing by 2003 and has been flat ever since, at around 17 percent. Other accounts suggest that youth obesity rates peaked even earlier, in 1999. Over the same general time frame, adult obesity rates have stayed steady around 30 percent. This all came after a tripling of rates between the 1970s and 1990s.

Mrs. Obama is welcome to take credit for a general flattening of trends that began years before her husband became president. However, when she starts urging the federal government to limit individual choices and centralize control in the federal government, attention should be paid. "As parents, we always put our children's interests first," she writes. "We wake up every morning and go to bed every night worrying about their well-being and their futures."

If she really believes that, then why not treat poor people with the same respect we treat middle- and upper-middle class folks? If we're going to supplement their incomes, why not give them a cash payment and let them figure out how to make the best use of it?

Similarly, if we can't trust our schools to figure out how best to fill their students' stomachs, why the hell are we forcing our children to attend such institutions in the first place? When is the last time you heard kids who attend schools of choice—whether private, religious, or public charters (which enroll disproportionately high numbers of low-income students)—even mention food?

During the debate over Obamacare's individual mandate, we had a fiery national conversation over whether the government could force you to buy broccoli. But even when the Supreme Court effectively said it could, nobody believed it could make you eat the stuff. That debate, it seems, took place in a simpler time.

Obama Says He Might Have Had Mild Concussion Playing Football as a Kid

Posted: 29 May 2014 11:00 AM PDT

President Barack Obama discussed his own injury history on Thursday at the first-ever White House Healthy Kids & Safe Sports Concussion Summit, speculating he suffered from “mild” concussions when he was younger.

Before the awareness was out there, when I was young and played football briefly, there were a couple of times where I'm sure that that ringing sensation in my head and the need to sit down for a while might have been a mild concussion, and at the time you didn't think anything of it. The awareness is improved today, but not by much.

Thursday’s summit is intended to find new ways to prevent and treat head injuries in youth athletes.

What Does the Pokémon World Eat? Pokémon. 

Posted: 29 May 2014 10:56 AM PDT

Anyone who grew up in the 1990s (or any time after that, basically) is familiar with the basic, addictive premise of the Pokémon video games: the world is full of fantastical creatures that "trainers" can collect and make fight each other—kind of like animals, but more easily tamed. But that world, designed for tweens and teenagers, might be far creepier than it appears.

Modern Farmer published an article that analyzes the mysterious food politics of the world of Pokémon and comes to a conclusion: "Simply put, it is a fact that people eat Pokémon." Collating creatures from the games and comments from the world's non-player characters who chat up the protagonist, it becomes clear that Pokémon produce the basis of the world's existence. Miltanks, a cow-like Pokémon, produce milk, while the tail of the Slowpoke, an exceedingly dumb Pokémon, is a delicacy. The poison of the serpentine Arbok makes a delicious cheese.

So how does this change our view of the games? In battle, Pokémon don't really die, they just faint and have to be brought back to life. But if Pokemon are actually raised like chickens, for food byproducts and meat, then presumably they are fully capable of death. It's a gruesome food-chain that sees trainers eating the very pals they depend on in battle.

Real animals have popped up in the Poké-universe in early art and comic books, but they gradually disappear in later games. When a character eats a hamburger, one has to assume it's more of a Poke-burger. Thankfully, no reference to eating Pikachu has yet been made—you don’t have to eat ‘em all.

Christians: It’s Time to Break Our Silence on Faith-Based Terrorism

Posted: 29 May 2014 10:52 AM PDT

"Christians in the Middle East and Africa are being slaughtered, tortured, raped, kidnapped, beheaded, and forced to flee the birthplace of Christianity. One would think this horror might be consuming the pulpits and pews of American churches. Not so. The silence has been nearly deafening," observed Kristen Powers in a Daily Beast article.

The Christian community in northern Nigeria has faced, with growing alarm, a spreading phenomenon: Christian girls under 18 are abducted and forced to convert to Islam by radical religious leaders, sometimes linked to the “Boko haram” group. This has only recently made headlines but the terrorist campaign there against Christians has been going on for years. Churches have been attacked and Christians killed. Last July, more than 40 people, mostly students, were killed in an attack against a college and in another attack, the dormitory of an institute was set on fire while the children were sleeping and those who tried to escape the fire were gunned down.

Yet far too few Christians have spoken out about any of this violence until a Nigeria-based social media campaign — #saveourgirls – recently started making headlines. I admit I have too often been among the silent. Last September, I sat with the world, in front of my television, horrified as Al-Shabaab terrorists slaughtered over 60 Saturday afternoon shoppers in Nairobi's Westgate Mall, while sparing Muslims through a kind of twisted religious quiz: Who was the prophet's mother, can you recite a verse from the Qu’ran, can you say the Shahada? Answer correctly, you were set free. If not, you were murdered.

Jews, Hindus, Christians, secular people — to these terrorists, we are "kuffar," a highly derogatory Arabic term referring to non-Muslims. In the mall that day, the "kuffar" fell victim to a warped “meticulous vetting process” that qualifies some, but not others, as human beings with human rights, including the right to life.

As Christians, we must break our silence, but wise and effective action can be planned and taken only by first asking why – why is the world, and especially the Christian world, so silent?

Let me offer six reasons, and thoughts on actions we can take, speaking as a Christian who cares and is seeking to effectively speak up:

1. Fear of Islamophobia

Many Christians fear that speaking up means adding their voices to the growing wave of Islamophobia in the Christian community. When fellow Christians gin up antagonism towards Muslims and Islam by emphasizing violent acts by extremists, thoughtful and peace-loving Christians – rightly and wisely – don't want to be part of that. But when we remain silent, we wrongly and unwisely aid and abet extremism in both the Christian and Muslim communities. Quoting Bonhoeffer, "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil."

Hateful extremists must be exposed — but never used to create guilt by association. American Christians would be rightly appalled if Muslims were to quote crazy Quran-burning pastors from Florida and Kansas to characterize all Christians as hate-mongers. Israeli Jews would be appalled to be defined by the infamous “kick out all Arabs or make them our slaves” quote from extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Muslims around the world are equally mortified when horrific statements about killing "first the Saturday people, then the Sunday people" are used to characterize all Muslims.

2. Unintended Consequences

Many of us understand that much anti-Christian violence is retaliation against hawkish American foreign policy which has brought suffering and death to large numbers of innocent Muslim children, women, and men. We know that invasion and occupation, torture, Guantanamo, drone strikes, and more have been identified with "the Christian West" and Christians around the world have suffered as a result.

American Christians must stop supporting foreign policies that purchase American security at the expense of the security of others, including fellow Christians. We must publicly admit to these deadly unintended consequences and instead demand of our leaders a coherent and constructive foreign policy, undergirded by a wiser, faith-inspired vision for the future.

3. Careless Disregard of Palestinian Human Rights

Careless bias against Palestinians has become a kind of pre-requisite in many circles for being considered "pro-Israel." As a result, many American Christians don't want to draw attention to the ongoing occupation of Palestine even though it stirs anti-West/anti-Christian fury that endangers Christians across the Middle East. Some may even conclude that this Christian suffering is the price that must be paid to give Israel the support she deserves and needs.

Israel/Palestine solutions will require us to stand strong for Israel's right to exist in peace and safety, while standing equally strong against the ongoing occupation. We must speak against all actions that dehumanize and oppress Palestinians and endanger Israelis, and seek solutions that are pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, pro-peace, and pro-justice.

4. Oil

American Christians – myself included – are part of a global oil-based economy. Like addicts, we depend on repressive regimes for our carbon fix, so we don't address their repression of religious freedom. We save on gas prices, but at great cost to the moral integrity of our souls.

Our continued addiction to dirty energy results in dirty foreign policy. We need to be more responsible for the real costs of our US energy policy, and become advocates of clean, sustainable energy; and clean, sustainable foreign policy.

5. Naiveté About the Links between Religious Identity and Violence

Many of us have avoided facing the unsettling understanding that religious identity can be turned to violent ends in any religion: Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist. To understand religious violence will require us to understand others' violence, and our own; then demand that our faith leaders set the example of building strong identities that are benevolent, not hostile, toward others.

Along with decrying violence in the name of religion, we can celebrate the heroic acts of kindness and solidarity of more "normative" people of faith like the Egyptian Christians who've protected mosques and the Egyptian Muslims who've protected churches on many occasions over the last few years.

6. Helplessness

We don't know what can be done, so we remain silent.

Each of us can be a pre-emptive peacemaker. We can build relationships — have-a-neighbor-over-to-dinner relationships — with people of other faiths. We, and our national and global religious leaders, must not just solve problems but build inspired friendships.

A colleague recently sent me two photographs. The first is of an official sign warning Israelis not to venture into Palestinian territory. The second sign, placed over the official sign, is homemade by Israeli women activists. "Refuse to be enemies," it says. These Jewish women have an important message for Christians, a message that loudly echoes the words of a Jewish man who himself lived in deeply conflicted, violent times in which extremists were all-too-ready to shed blood in the name of God or nation.

We Christians cannot remain silent about the horrific violence against Christians around the world. But to respond in ways that intensify fear, hatred and mistrust will never move us beyond global religious hostility. We must be vocal advocates for the rights of all religious minorities — from Texas to Tehran, from Nashville to Nigeria. We can refuse to be silent and we can refuse double standards.

We can refuse to be enemies.

Brian McLaren is an initiator with the Cana Initiative ( and a participant in FaithSource, a resource for journalists seeking diverse voices of faith on important issues, sponsored by Auburn Seminary. He has written over a dozen books, including Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road.


Watch the New Annie Trailer—With a New Lyric in ‘It’s the Hard-Knock Life’

Posted: 29 May 2014 10:44 AM PDT

There’s a new trailer out for the Quvenzhané Wallis-led Annie, due in theaters in December — and observant listeners who are fans of the original will notice something peculiar around minute marker 1:45.

It’s not the all-caps THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW or the helicopter views of Manhattan. It’s the song lyrics in the background, from the Annie classic “It’s the Hard-Knock Life”: “No one care for you a smidge / when you’re a foster kid.” If the meter sounds a little off, that’s because the original line had another syllable, for “when you’re in an orphanage.”

Extra syllable and less-than-perfect rhyme aside, it’s clear why the lyric would have been changed. This Annie takes place in today’s world, not during the Depression. As a spokesperson for the New York State Office of Children and Family Services, which is the state’s oversight agency for foster-care placement, tells TIME, “We in the state of New York do not use the term orphanage.”

Though orphanages were prevalent around the turn of the last century, they were already on the way out by the time the original Annie took place. According to the advocacy group Childrens’ Rights, early foster systems, known as “boarding out,” began to take their place, as it became clear that large, institutional orphanages could damage children. They haven’t totally disappeared but the word has faded from use. (Outside the U.S. it’s more common, and even domestically there do exist privately-run homes that might fall under a broad definition of “orphanage”; in 1994, Republicans in Congress suggested that going back to the orphanage system everywhere might be a good idea for the U.S.) Tracking the use of “orphanage” versus “foster care” makes clear that the former has gone out of fashion overall, especially since the late 1970s.

As for Annie, going from an orphanage to foster care isn’t the only change she’s seen: around 1:10, it’s clear that the words to “Smile” — a song chock full of ’30s references — have been altered too. No word yet on what they’ll do with “We’d Like to Thank You Herbert Hoover.”


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