My colleague Marc Ambinder has a great post on the politics of obesity, writing:
But what's lacking in the current conversation, even from the administration, is a long-term plan that recognizes the interrelated nature of obesity and global food sourcing.
Precisely right. No matter how loudly Michelle Obama beats the "eat right and excercise" drum, change will not happen without a serious reconsideration of the externalized costs of the obesity pandemic. Yes, we all have the right to make our own food choices, but those choices are constrained by cost, and at the moment the cheapest food is often the least healthy food.
Years ago a food scientist told me that M+M's cost less per calorie than almost anything else. Given our natural biological propensity evolution toward maximizing caloric intake while minimizing exersion, M+M's are hard for many of us to pass up, particularly given their relatively low cost. Of course, the true cost of consuming large quantities of such calorie dense treats are enormous--but these largely health related costs are abstracted and externalized while the more immediate costs of buying the food is not.
I spend a lot of time in Maine these days, and enjoy shopping at the local farmers' market up to a point--that is, the price point. Prices at most farmers' markets are so high that ordinary consumers shy away, let alone the poor. I for one am not ready to spend $2 on a tomato. Fortunately, though, the Wholesome Wave Foundation recently started up a "Veggie Prescription" program in Maine giving physicians the opportunity to "prescribe" farmers market vouchers for low-income patients--allowing them up to $40 in free food. The foundation plans to study the patients' over time, and if the results of this study show improved health, hopes these findings will spur local, state and national governments -- as well as health insurance companies -- to consider ways to help more people buy fresh produce.
This is, I think, a terrific idea, one in keeping with the American obsession with proof. Let's see whether poor people can become healthier by eating differently, just as so many wealthy people have chosen to do. And let's see whether subsidizing that $2 tomato is ultimately the cheapest way to go.
We all know the food industry is not in business to make us healthier, no matter its claims. What we've traded off for the so-called "free food market" is a socialized health care cost. It's time we push back on the assumption that individuals have the "right" to make unhealthy "choices" when in fact their real choice is to buy what they can afford--and defer the true cost of the ill health that results on the nation as a whole. The Maine program is an excellent first step...let's hope many more follow.
Ellen Ruppel Shell is a professor of journalism at Boston University. She is the author of The Job: Work and It’s Future in a Time of Radical Change.