By Robert S. Becker
As epic battles brew between sustainable, organic and non-renewable industrial farming, the politics of food surround our every bite. That’s a good thing, driving better assessments of actual food costs while factoring in enormous, perpetual farm subsidies and government supports. What we eat, and deem worthy for others to digest, has as much to do with class, income, family, and status as with packaging, nutrition and health.
Hardly going down as a high point is the latest skirmish from Mayor Bloomberg of New York, defying logic and common sense by asserting smaller soda containers will automatically reduce consumption of sugary drinks. Talk about vulnerable liberal tunnel vision and over-reach, this notion skims the surface of obesity, empty calories, and unhealthy eating habits. Chew on this indigestible morsel, Mr. Mayor:
The average American eats 29 pounds of French fries, 23 pounds of pizza, 24 pounds of ice cream and consumes 53 gallons of soda, 24 pounds of artificial sweeteners, 2.736 pounds of salt and 90,700 milligrams of caffeine per year. Do we really think we can create health in that toxic environment?
And Dr. Mark Hyman bypasses other average annual intakes: 632 lbs of diary, 85 lbs. of oil, and 63 lbs. of beef alone. If food fights obscure air, soil, water, media and mind contamination, this liberal “toxic environment” will draw out the wingnuts, yapping loudly: “keep government out of my gullet” or “give me calories or give me death.”
Forever seeking wedges
Food fights loom because gay rights and abortion, even “gun control” folly, have lost some electoral clout. Gun sales lag only the ultimate rightwing juggernaut: lying by design. Likewise idiotic defiance of climate warming, tempered by fierce storms and sizzling temperatures. Momentarily, even varieties of born-again fundies most resistant to logic have receded, perhaps split over Romney’s cultish Mormonism. Few voters wonder where Obama left the womb, to which sovereign state our Lord of Drones pays homage, or how he displays his good Christian faith: drone strikes that take out Muslim wedding parties obliterate that canard.
No, expect the benighted to rally against liberal do-gooding, as the diabetic Tea Partiers bellow, "Save our Freedom Fries." Joining the fray comes corporate food money, already grumbling over Disney’s recent park junk food ban. And towns like Richmond, CA. with more poor people than decent supermarkets, will be targeted for simply considering taxation of sugary drinks – and with such nefarious ends: reinstate phys ed, nutrition classes and local vegetable gardens.
Food battles, part of health wars
Yes, food wars will come into their own, riding the absurd debate whether elected officials can govern something called “public health.” The cost already for diabetes, now hitting teens who aren’t oversight (simply junk food junkies), stagger budgets: one Medicare dollar in three deals with diabetes, with predictions of “$3.4 trillion over the next 10 years to treat pre-diabetes and Type 2 diabetes.” Heck, that’s comparable to what we spent on WWII, or will on Iraq+Afghanistan.
At stake isn’t only “regulating” eating habit for those “lacking self-control,” but denying the link between poverty and bad eating, indeed the entire junk food-genetics-race-diabetes-obesity syndrome. It’s another version of blaming/shaming the victim, as if obesity tracks only ignorance or sloth, when it’s often about location, location, location: “Obesity, Diabetes and Poverty Share a Common Zip Code” headlines this typical medical summary. A Daily Kos blogger details the poverty-stress-obesity linkage for, under stress, “your body produces a chemical known as cortisol [causing] individuals to gain weight.”
The Big Food Picture
A new book, White Bread, A Social History of the Store-bought Loaf, by political scientist Aaron Bobrow-Strain, offers a far more comprehensive viewpoint, reminding us that food debates are also inevitably about class, income and social status. What reaches our plates depends less on healthfulness or personal choice than environment, promotion, and values from family and ethnic backgrounds – and food follows fashion. Item: white bread by the 1930s was emblematic of purity, progress and modernity, delivering food marvels immortalized by the cliché, "the greatest thing since sliced bread." High status plus convenience for working mothers, supplemented with (depleted) vitamins and minerals, established permanence.
Yet coded messages pushing industrial sanitation, “untouched by human hands” weren’t only about purity: they talked up abandoning the less sanitary (immigrant) hands that baked small-time, local breads. Now, tables turn and bland, empty white bread is trashed as nutritionally empty, identified with poor, ignorant folk and scorned by modern foodies. Though denuded white flour (plus chemical additives) still dominate ready-made, industrial buns, cakes, cookies and crackers, the whole wheat revolt (“don’t eat white, eat right”) made both a social point (public health) and of late a private one (knowledgeable individuals will pay the whole wheat price to stay healthy). "White bread" now derides Republicans devoid of substance.
Everything is political
Bobrow-Strain further argues when food choices are politicized, good intentions reinforce social divides: righteous know-it-alls try to fix the poor, pitiful, ignorant, or oblivious, with mixed results. The tested, underlying dynamic is that income dictates the quality of what we eat; with per capita real income frozen for decades, poorer minority urban and rural folks flock to the cheapest, calorie-rich, nutrient-light industrial pickings. Compare how far $20 goes at the subsidized, corner fast-food trough (dinner for four) vs. travel to grocery shopping, time and costs to cook, then badgering tired kids to clean-up. The industrial food machine has grown rich by obliterating home-cooked meals (self-reliance and family togetherness) for wide swathes of America, thus our obesity-diabetes epidemic and more.
Bigger implications extend beyond eating, as Donna Shalala, ex-Clinton cabinet member, declares obesity a national security threat because so many military-age prospects are overweight, as the first generation “to come through without mandatory physical education in their schools." Could it be that inactivity plus dreadful government farm policy are both coming home to roost? Imagine the irony of an empire desperate for soldiers to defend the very system that produces so many unfit prospects. Rome, here we come.
Bottom line: the linkage of food and health and fitness is complicated, resistant to isolated notions like mere container size. Forcing sugar addicts to buy two containers of sugary liquid is pandering, serving mostly the container industry. Surprise, unlimited factory food money saturates politics and that means sponsored profits that don’t serve customer or community health or fitness.
Life becomes a giant pot-luck, favoring the affluent but not protecting them from their own "affluenza," as in diabetes, alcoholism and cancer. But solutions must defy our predominant planning-allergy, just as we deny the full dimensions, especially externalities, of energy, education, transportation, or environmental impacts. So much for self-flattery we are the vaunted “problem-solving” species. Why, all this could drive one to drink – or the comfort food of a Big Mac and chocolate shake.