Cheerios and Choate

New Orleans The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) slapped around General Mills and its Cherrios’ cereal for making inflated health claims about reducing cholesterol, making those little “o’s” something more like a drug than food. Ironically, this news hit at the same time as the stories on the passing of Robert Choate, the consumer food advocate well known in the 1970’s mainly for exposing the limited health value of breakfast cereals.

General Mills will no doubt keep up its shenanigans in the future just as it has in the past except when the Robert Choate’s of our time decide to step up and stand out on these issues. Consumer protection, as we are being reminded everyday of this recession – remember the subprimes! – is not glamorous or front page news anymore, but a daily, necessary grind.

I knew Choate in the early 1970’s. He was that rare bird flying across our unlikely path in the early days of ACORN in Arkansas. He was a patrician, Republican, and Nixon camp follower. Normally that would make someone like Bob a card carrying hate-a-rator of the first order, but instead he was a quiet and constant ally.

He was the behind the scenes force who used his connections and position within the Republican administration to move significant funding from to a fledgling group called Food for All. Food for All, like Choate, made its base in Phoenix, and it was there as well that he found and promoted Grace Alvarez, its director, as the voice for moving more food support and entitlements to low income families.

ACORN was just emerging at the time in Arkansas as a sparky organization of welfare recipients, public housing tenants, and neighborhood residents in lower income areas, both white and black, in unlikely places like Little Rock, Pine Bluff, Fort Smith, and Jonesboro. Through some miracle as we were scratching for whatever support we could find in those early, difficult days, Food for All, which meant Grace and Bob, suddenly awarded us $44,000 to support our ability to increase access to food stamps, WIC, and other programs of that era. At the time this was the largest grant we had ever gotten by an order of magnitude that astounded. Previously a grant of $10,000 or so from the southern Presbyterians thanks to the aid of Rev. Wilford Hobby had been difference between survival with ACORN and bagging up and moving on.

If I were lucky I would run into Choate every decade or so. I think I saw him last a couple of years ago in a conference in DC. I didn’t see him enough to recognize him on sight, but when I last saw him he came up to me, said how proud he was of ACORN, and asked if I remember him.

Yes, vividly, and with memories and thanks that can never be erased simply by today’s headlines and obituary notices.

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