Nebraska Nutrition

Lincoln -- If I lived here year-round perhaps I'd get used to it: all the overweight people, that is.

Corn fed, indeed. Corn syrup fed, high fructose version, is more like it. I simply don't remember there being such an epidemic of obesity when I was growing up in Nebraska, or even when I lived here a quarter-century ago.

No one seems much to care. Three of us recently stopped at a truckstop restaurant on West O Street in Lincoln. Two "sides" came with each meal. I asked for greens. "We don't have greens," the waitress said. "Nobody orders them." Last month in Omaha we stopped at a diner not far from downtown. Same thing, no greens. At a nearby booth sat two young women who could have been the sisters of those fat twins in the movie Nebraska. They were both pushing 300 pounds. At a nearby table a grandpa and grandma, both wide-bodied, were treating their three young granddaughters, still wispy-thin delights, to lunch. The grandfather ordered them all extra french fries and taught them to dip their fries in a sundae, a green, foamy tower of liquified sugar in which he was indulging himself. "This is the way to eat your fries, yum-yum."

I asked the Omaha waitress how a diner could not have greens. Every diner I ever knew had canned green beans, or peas and carrots, or cole slaw. Those choices almost defined diners. She said I could have a salad, which I ordered. But it had no green in it, only the greying innards of a head of iceberg lettuce with a dressing that was probably thickened and sweetened with high fructose corn syrup.

The irony in this is that the University of Nebraska in Lincoln was once the home of one of the nation's great nutritionists, Ruth M. Leverton, who promoted food labeling and recommended dietary allowances (RDAs). More recently, unable to resist the fashion of public-private partnerships, UNL has started to combine its Food Science program with that of ConAgra, a private company that is a leading opponent of food labeling initiatives nationwide. So much for the tradition of Ruth Leverton. The UNL chancellor has said that ConAgra is the "perfect collaborator" for the state university. He may well be right in a way not intended.