Happy Meals

August 12, 2006

This generation of American children will be the first to live sicker, shorter lives than their parents. Those who view the attention being given to childhood obesity and diabetes as merely an extension of our culture’s unhealthy obsession with women’s weight– or otherwise doubt the “epidemic” nature of these problems– are in for a bumpy ride. A tsunami of press coverage regarding these issues is set to hit the newsstands these next few months.

Yesterday I attended a conference hosted by the California Nutrition Network, the state organization that disburses USDA funds to California agencies, schools, and nonprofits who are working to help low-income residents adopt healthy eating and physical activity patterns. I learned some interesting stuff–and not necessarily what the organizers had in mind, either.

Sometimes we think that food choices are just about personal preference, but it’s illuminating to discover all the invisible forces that affect what we buy for our families. If you are a family on a tight budget, the federal government’s spending priorities really do affect the contents of your shopping cart.

On the one hand, the USDA is trying to minimize the diet-related health problems that cost our country so much money in health care. On the other hand, the USDA is subsidizing (via the Farm Bill) the very foods that are making people ill. They are saying “eat more fruits and vegetables!” And then turning around and not directing subsidies to fruit and vegetable growers.

When the feds flow cash to certain crops (hello corn!!!), it keeps those foods and byproducts cheap and plentiful. You look at a fast food menu, and it’s a who’s who of subsidized foods (wheat, corn byproducts, soy, and livestock raised on corn). People on a limited budget buy cheap food. It stands to reason that if the Farm Bill directed subsidies to fruit and vegetable crops instead, it would make those foods cheap and plentiful, and MacDonald’s would find a way to make you a 99 cent meal of those ingredients instead.

Like, stop subsidizing high fructose corn syrup already! Coca Cola doesn’t need your help, and neither do the kids that drink it for breakfast. How about bringing that USDA gravy train to blueberries instead? Am I a dreamer or what?

Well, obesity rates continue to rise almost as fast as the deficit, and lawmakers are gonna be tripping over themselves to be seen as part of the solution. I predict a large cultural turn-around on the horizon, similar to the shifts that have occurred in the last 30 years around seatbelts, drunk driving, smoking, and littering.

However, where diet is concerned, nutrition education isn’t enough to get people to change. Big bucks have gone into marketing research to see what makes a person improve their eating habits. For 20% of the population, facts are enough: an intellectual process. 50% can be compelled through marketing. For the rest, it’s gotta be through policy-the invisible hand of government sneaking subsidized berries into your Happy Meal!