Laurie Toby Edison

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Farm Bill: Growing Fat for $$

Laurie and Debbie say:

Michael Pollan, America’s best food-policy writer, is at it again, and this time he’s revealing a very crucial piece of the junk food puzzle.

People who watch American food patterns are aware that “the people with the least amount of money to spend on food are the ones most likely to be overweight.” The beginning of the article tells us what we already know: junk food is much cheaper than good food.

Pollan, however, is interested in why that is true.

Like most processed foods, the Twinkie is basically a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat — three of the five commodity crops that the farm bill supports, to the tune of some $25 billion a year. (Rice and cotton are the others.) For the last several decades — indeed, for about as long as the American waistline has been ballooning — U.S. agricultural policy has been designed in such a way as to promote the overproduction of these five commodities, especially corn and soy.

A result of these policy choices is on stark display in your supermarket, where the real price of fruits and vegetables between 1985 and 2000 increased by nearly 40 percent while the real price of soft drinks (a k a liquid corn) declined by 23 percent. The reason the least healthful calories in the supermarket are the cheapest is that those are the ones the farm bill encourages farmers to grow.

So what’s going on here, as Pollan so neatly reveals, is that poor people are being basically led (if not forced) into a completely unnatural diet. An unnaturally high-junk diet will not make everyone fat, and we certainly would prefer it if the article was focused on healthy eating rather than “ballooning waistlines.” Nonetheless, that same unnaturally high-junk diet will make a lot of people unnaturally fat, and almost everyone unnaturally unhealthy. We believe that is every bit as disturbing as unnaturally low-calorie diets.

A public-health researcher from Mars might legitimately wonder why a nation faced with what its surgeon general has called “an epidemic” of obesity would at the same time be in the business of subsidizing the production of high-fructose corn syrup.

And then what happens? Then people who are already marginalized because they are poor become marginalized yet again for being fat. And the studies show that poor people have more expensive health needs (and now we can blame them for their poor food choices, which then lets us blame them for being fat and lazy, and look! now we can blame them for being poor in the first place).

And the farm lobby, along with the rest of the “fat cats,” stays rich, powerful, and self-righteous.

Thanks to Lynn Kendall for the link.

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4 Responses to “Farm Bill: Growing Fat for $$”

  1. La di Da Says:

    I’m always a little skeptical of claims on health (and “obesity”) based on high-fructose corn syrup. Here in Australia, we supposedly have the same porportion of fat people and fat, poor people, yet there’s not a lick of HFCS to be found in the supermarket. Cane sugar, sure – it’s a big industry and they’d have conniptions if HFCS manufacturers tried to get in on the game.

    Food (especially produce) has increased in relative price due to a severe drought that’s been going on for about 10 years now – but that’s also translated across to to processed foods that are made from the produce. Few Australian farmers (of grazing animals and produce) are rich and ironically many are below the poverty line and need charity-provided food parcels.

    I haven’t thought about this enough to make any kind of real conclusions, but it’s something interesting to consider.

    [The poor here are also blamed for "poor food choices" making them fat. Mostly by well-off white government officials and medical professors and Jamie Oliver, none of whom have any idea what it's like to be a single parent of 3 trying to feed everyone on a $100/week grocery budget. You can make a tasty home-made pizza in the time it takes to order a "nasty" one delivered, says Jamie. Well, yes, but you're spending that 25 minutes paying attention in the kitchen and not with your kids, one of whom is strangling the cat and the other is sick. There's a lot of class snobbery there. (Nigella Lawson is galaxies better at understanding that kids are finicky eaters and that it's perfectly fine to use mayonnaise from a jar and frozen peas.) Lots of class snobbery there.]

  2. Rene Says:

    Your first sentence needs to be corrected to read:

    MP is America’s anti-food activist writer, is at it again, and this time he’s spreading more junk science, bogus information and scares about our food.

    He not only wants people to believe he is a nutritional scientist, chemist and sociologist, but now a medical professional, too, and is taking on obesity.

    This just goes to show, people will believe anything anyone tells them. They love a good scare.

    Great comment by LadiDa — it very much has an elitist, classism under tone, as most prejudices do.

  3. Stef Says:

    that same unnaturally high-junk diet will make a lot of people unnaturally fat, and almost everyone unnaturally unhealthy.

    I’m no fan of HFCS, but I have a lot of problems with this statement. Is there any good research backing up the claims that it’s diet per say making poor people unhealthy, as opposed to more stress, lack of health insurance, and other issues that are more common among poor people?

    During the same time period that HFCS has been used extensively and Americans have gotten bigger, longevity has increased quite a lot.

  4. Laurie Says:

    Stef,

    I think that all of the issues you point at are crucial in talking about the health of the poor. We were saying that the manipulation of food is also a factor. I doubt that HFCS and size and longevity are related, I’d be more apt to think it’s coincidental.

    The research I know about has been done in specific ethnic groups. I’ll look into what else is out there.

    La di Da,

    Thanks for the Australian perspective.

    I completely agree with you about the “blaming” and the class aspects of this.

    And while clearly we thought what Pollan said was important, I found the “top down” aspect of his reform ideas highly dubious.

    And having raised kids as a single Mom, I really relate to your food comments about that.

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