A Republican worth memorializing

No question about it. Republicans are in the doghouse, for reasons I outlined recently. Even prominent Republicans like Tom Ridge, former secretary of Homeland Security, who could probably wrest the Pennsylvania senate seat from new “Democrat” Arlen Specter, prefer to just so no. The brand is badly tarnished. You have to look hard to find Republicans worthy of admiration.

You might expect that if I were to memorialize a Republican, I would memorialize former New York state representative and HUD Secretary Jack Kemp, who passed away recently. There is no question that Kemp had a distinguished career, which included being Bob Dole’s running mate in the 1996 election. Kemp was certainly a decent man but I will let others memorialize Kemp. Instead, I wish to draw your attention to Robert B. Choate Jr., who passed away on May 3, 2009 at the age of 84. Choate was a Republican. Today he would no longer fit inside the much smaller tent that is today’s insular Republican Party. Choate was more of the Rockefeller type of Republican, a wing that has virtually been purged from the Republican Party.

Choate inherited most of his wealth from his father, who published a newspaper. In spite of being a Republican, he was a progressive in the best sense of the word. In the 1950s while traveling overseas, he contracted hepatitis. During his convalescence, he read the memoirs of civil rights leader Walter White. The book transformed Choate’s life. Through the memoir, Choate learned just how horrible poverty actually was. He vowed to do his part to reduce poverty. He was a major force in Washington for the hunger lobby and worked closely with organizations like Citizens Crusade Against Poverty. Because of his Republican credentials, during Richard Nixon’s term in office, he was appointed to work with the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. There he led a groundbreaking study child nutrition in America.

What he discovered appalled him. In many cases, he learned that children had enough calories, but lacked basic nutrition. He quickly focused on breakfast cereals. He discovered that most breakfast cereals had plenty of sugar but little in the way of the nutrition required by a growing body. Today’s Republicans would leave this as a problem for the free market to solve or ignore. Instead, in 1970 Choate directly took on the nation’s cereal manufacturers. Choate coined the term “empty calories”, which defined foods high in calories but with little nutrition. Of the sixty cereals he studied, he found 40 of them were full of empty calories.

The cereal industry protested, but his doggedness was effective. Within years, cereal manufacturers added nutritional labels to their cereals. Today we take food labeling for granted. Yet without Choate at the vanguard, we might still be ignorant of the calories and lack of nutrition in the many packaged products that we eat.

Call him Mr. “Empty Calories”. His term has stuck with us these last forty years. It is almost impossible to discuss nutrition in America today without using the phrase. America is clearly in the grip of an obesity epidemic but thanks to Choate, we at least know why. Essentially, we are eating a lot of crap that our body doesn’t need. Moreover, because the food we eat tastes good but does not fill us up, we want to eat more of it, which means that our waistlines keep expanding.

Americans at last are starting to heed the advice that Choate promulgated nearly forty years ago. In the last decade, we have seen an explosion of supermarkets emphasizing organic foods high in nutrition and taste. While it is easier to find nutritional information for groceries, for the most part we do not have the same information about the food we eat in restaurants. I suspect if Choate were alive today that he would be pressing Congress to have restaurants disclose the nutritional information of their dishes.

Choate, a mere citizen activist, transformed America. Americans today live longer lives, but in many ways due to our poor eating and exercise habits, our quality of life has deteriorated. I am hoping I will be one of those Americans that take Choate’s advice to heart. For many of us who do, we can look forward to long and healthy lives, giving us many decades of an extended quality life to enjoy.

Many people are concerned about choosing life, but fewer are concerned ensuring our quality of life. For that, we can thank Robert B. Choate.

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