NYT on Blaming Parents and the Effectiveness of Taxing Soda, What About Big Food in the Discussion of Childhood Obesity?

Image via Thought Catalog

There have been two relatively popular articles written by the New York Times recently, which discuss childhood obesity.  The most recent discusses a research project focusing on uncovering most cost-effective ways to reduce childhood obesity: taxing sugary beverages, ending the tax write-off for advertising in children’s television programming, increasing physical activity in schools, and fostering healthier habits in preschool settings.  The second article published a few days earlier discusses parental denial of weight issues in their children and how this denial is fueling the childhood obesity epidemic.

I would consider both of these articles informative and well-written, but severely lacking in a crucial topic central to childhood obesity discussions: the role of the big food industry.  Understandably, news articles are not the forum for extensive scientific and theoretical discussions on the problem of childhood obesity.  However, when discussing parental roles in childhood obesity and evaluating cost-effective measures to target obesity the failure to mention the food industry as a significant factor is misguided.

How is it possible that childhood obesity can be discussed without including even a brief introduction of the influence the food industry (not just the fast food industry).  From advertising, market domination, political influences, and poor food quality, the food industry is just as much to blame as parents in denial.  While it is all well and good to discuss these multi-faceted issues, I can’t help but point out the glaring hole that the New York Times left in these articles by not discussing big food.  Frankly, it speaks volumes about the influence and stretch of the food industry.

Related to this post, the documentary Fed Up is a great resource on the food industry as it relates to children and obesity.  I highly suggest giving it a gander.


Food Stamp Restrictions, A Follow-up

Yesterday, lawmakers in Wisconsin approved a trio of bills that will restrict and regulate public-benefit recipients.  In a previous post I discussed the misguided approach to limiting the use of food stamps, and briefly mentioned the proposals taking place in Wisconsin.  As a follow up to that article (which can be found here), a little information about recent events in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin Democrats are optimistic that these measures will not gain federal approval, but that does not mean that the misguided mentality surrounding food stamps and low-income diets will change.

No Steak, Seafood, or Dignity for You: The Cloud of Misunderstanding Around Food Stamps

Image Source

As of late there have been a flurry of proposed laws related to food stamps and limitations related to food stamp use.  To be frank, these laws are shrouded in misunderstanding, and as the Washington Post puts it, is a giant double-standard.  Here at home in Wisconsin, Republican lawmakers are putting in motion a bill that would require food stamp users to use photo IDs for their purchases.  Their reasoning is to prevent waste, fraud, and abuse, but in actuality has very little discernible benefit.

Overall, a majority of these laws and policies stem from assumptions about food stamp recipients and their lifestyle choices.  In Wisconsin, the lawmakers supporting the new bill cite investigative journalism pieces citing food stamps being sold online.  Similar states have proposed incorporating restrictions or policies surrounding food stamps.  Notably, Missouri has proposed a ban on using food stamps to buy steak or seafood.  Not only does this demonstrate the stereotypes surrounding low-income lifestyles, but also a illustrates a lack of understanding and logic regarding the food stamp system.

Emily Badger at the Washington Post beautifully articulates three particular flaws inherent within these proposals.  Quite an interesting read.

But the logic behind the proposals is problematic in at least three, really big ways.  The first is economic: There’s virtually no evidence that the poor actually spend their money this way.

Most poignant in my opinion is the double-standard that requires food stamp recipients to prove their worth and to succumb to restrictions on what they are allowed to consume while other populations that receive government benefits (student loans, mortgage tax breaks, subsidies, etc.) are not.

Ultimately, these types of proposals lack in both logic and humanity.  Restrictions on food and further barriers to access food will only continue the cyclical dilemma of food injustice.  Instead of shaming and blaming low-income food stamp recipients, a more compassionate and discerning light needs to be shed on the dominating issues surrounding food stamps and food access.  A little humanity could go a long way.

A little (painfully on point) humor on the issue.

Tis the Season, Give Healthfulness Instead of the Can in the Back of Your Cupboard

Image via NPR

When Thanksgiving rolls around, food drives and food pantry donations soar.  In the season of giving, we all begin to think about how much we have and offer the extra that we have to others.  But sometimes, those offerings do more harm than good.  So many times people reach into the cob-webbed recesses of their cupboards selecting the can of creamed corn that hasn’t seen the light of day since 2004, or the ramen noodles left behind years ago when kids went off to college.

NPR’s The Salt nails in on the head when it talks about donating nutrient dense food in place of castaway food items or expired cans of non-perishable food.  Instead, by donating kidney beans, or lentils, or canned tuna, recipients are given more healthful food options that they can actually use.  With so many people struggling with diabetes and other diet-related diseases, the push towards healthy eating is truly essential across social and economic spectrums.  Eating healthy should be accessible to everyone, especially those who are hungry.

Ruth Solari, interviewed by The Salt and hunger advocate with Super Food Drive states it perfectly.

The goal, says Solari, is to make healthful eating approachable and “really debunking the idea that it’s an elitist thing.”

It is time to let go of the pervasive notion that those in need should “take what they can get.”  We all have the right to food, and the right to access food in a dignified way.  In my opinion, dignified does not include eating the leftover unwanted goods someone else wouldn’t eat.  It is time to understand that collective health is of the utmost importance across political, social, economic, and environmental lines.  And at the very least, we need to understand that hunger is a plight that no person should have to face, no matter what circumstances brought them there.

“It’s not enough to fill empty stomachs . . . The opposite of being hungry isn’t being full – it’s being healthy.”

So as you are looking to give back this season, let the aged goods in the back of your pantry be, and give the gift of health.  For information on how to hold a healthy food drive, check out Super Food Drive, or check out their shopping list for great items to donate.  Even a donation to your local food pantry can go a long way.

Midterm Elections as They Related to Food and Agriculture

Image via Mother Jones

The midterm election yesterday represented much more than the age-old two-party contention.  In a handful of states, propositions, measures, and candidates found on the ballot held major implications on a plethora of agriculture and food issues.  Mother Jones outlined the various contests and their outcomes, copied below.

Personally, I was most anticipating San Francisco’s Measure E and Berkeley’s Measure D which proposed a two- and one-cent tax per ounce on sugary beverages, respectively.  Given the fight that Big Soda put up against the measures, the contest was one to watch in relation to the future of the soda tax and the fight against big soda.

Another big-ticket item in Colorado, Oregon, and Hawaii were in relation to GMOs.  Unsurprisingly, Monsanto, Pepsico, and Kraft raised over $36 million dollars collectively in these states to fight the initiatives and measures that would require GMO labeling and in Hawaii, a complete moratorium on GMO crops.

Read more about the different contests below, courtesy of Mother Jones.

Colorado Proposition 105: This statewide ballot initiative pushed for the labeling of genetically modified foods, requiring most GM foods to bear a label reading, “produced with genetic engineering.” Burrito chain Chipotle and Whole Foods came out in support of the measure, while agribusiness giants Monsanto, PepsiCo and Kraft came out against it. (Unsurprisingly, 105’s opponents raised more than $12 million—many times what supporters brought in.) Outcome: Colorado voters resoundingly rejected Prop 105, with nearly 70 percent of voters voting no.

Oregon Measure 92: This ballot measure was nearly identical to Colorado’s, requiring foods with GMO ingredients to be labeled. Like in Colorado, Big Ag mobilized big-time against Measure 92, raising more than $16 million. But 92’s supporters—including Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps—raised an impressive $8 million. Outcome: Undecided

San Francisco Measure E and Berkeley Measure D: These two Bay Area cities both considered levying taxes on sugary beverages. San Francisco’s Measure E proposed a two-cent per ounce tax, while Berkeley’s Measure D proposed one-cent per ounce. Both races were considered something of a last stand for the soda tax—if it couldn’t pass in these two bastions of liberalism and healthy living, it was essentially doomed everywhere else. No surprise, then, that Big Soda spent more than $7 million in San Francisco and over $1.7 million in Berkeley (population: 117,000) to defeat the measures. Outcome: Failing to gain the necessary two-thirds supermajority, the San Francisco soda tax failed. Berkeley’s passed overwhelmingly, with 75 percent voting yes.

Maui County, Hawaii, GMO Moratorium Bill: Hawaii’s Maui County—which includes the islands of Maui, Lanai and Molokai—considered one of the strongest anti-GMO bills ever: a complete moratorium on the cultivation of genetically engineered crops until studies conclusively prove they are safe. Agriculture is big business on Maui: the island is a major producer of sugarcane, coffee, and pineapple, among other things. Monsanto is among the companies operating farms in Maui County, and this bill would’ve effectively shut it down. (Under the law, farmers knowingly cultivating GMOs would get hit with a $50,000 per day fine.) Opponents raised nearly $8 million against the measure, making it the most expensive campaign in state history. Outcome: Maui citizens approved the temporary ban, with 50 percent voting yes.

Florida Second Congressional District: Rep. Steve Southerland, a tea party darling, faced Democrat Gwen Graham in his attempt to get re-elected in this Florida Panhandle district. Last year, Southerland attempted to pass legislation that would’ve cut $39 billion in food stamp funding, forcing millions out of the program. (He called the cuts “the defining moral issue of our time.”) Widely considered the most sweeping cuts in decades, they were not passed, and made Southerland an extremely vulnerable incumbent. Outcome: In a rare House flip for Democrats, Rep. Southerland was defeated by Democrat Gwen Graham.

Kansas Senate: Pat Roberts, the three-term Republican Senator from Kansas, faced independent challenger Greg Orman in a surprisingly tight race for this deep-red state. The race was considered a key indicator of the GOP’s Senate hopes, and important for agriculture too: Roberts had said that in the event of a Republican majority, he would be Senate Agriculture Committee Chair—given that he won his own contest, of course. Roberts, once considered a “savior” of food stamp programs, attempted to cut $36 billion from the program last year, and would certainly advocate for similar policy as chairman. Outcome: Roberts won re-election, and the GOP won the Senate majority. Look for Chairman Roberts in 2015.

Animal Welfare, Zero-Sum Games, and Our Food Choices

Image via NPR

I stumbled across an NPR article recently, intrigued not because of its seemingly veganism/vegetarianism commentary, but becausethe human psychology component of goodliness as something other than zero-sum.  The author cites that the most common argument she encounters is the “there are so many other human issues in this world for me to care about to also get all up in caring about factory animals” statement.  In so many of my conversations with friends, co-workers, yoga students, sometimes even strangers, about food consumption and unhealthy food choices, I encounter similar arguments attempting to evade the personal responsibility that surrounds unhealthy or environmentally unfriendly food choices.

Similarities can be drawn between Tania Lombrozo’s article and personal consumption choices in the food industry as a whole.  As Lombrozo states, sometimes goodliness is in fact zero-sum, especially in the case of amount of time, money, and resources you may have.  However, when it comes to the choice between consuming free-range chicken or caged and antibiotic-fed chicken, or local organic vegetables instead of a bag of Doritos, or a diet soda riddled with refined and artificial sugar instead of water, are we actually limited in caring about the issues surrounding these products?

I have to agree with Lombrozo, that while the zero-sum argument may afford us a sense of security and ongoing goodliness in the face of so many issues to care about, it is actually a fallacy. When we have the option between foods that are organic/local/vegan/vegetarian/pesticide-free/antibiotic-free/cage-free etc., does it really take up that much of our mental capacity to make a conscious effort towards goods that are better for our environment, better for our own health, or better for animal welfare?  No, it really doesn’t.  We can make the choice between regular and diet soda, so why should the decision between better products and poor products be any more difficult?

As intelligent beings, we are able to consider multiple issues before we choose to consume a product.  Cell phones and their corresponding contracts are riddled with options, add-ons, and benefits and we seemingly are able to handle the onslaught of those options.  The same should apply to food and what we choose to consume.  Perhaps we are so intelligent that we have tricked ourselves, as Lombrozo hints at, into devising elaborate arguments justifying our lack of caring.  Instead of crafting arguments to protect our aura of goodliness, it might just be easier to consider our willpower to be an unlimited resource.  As Lombrozo states, “there is some evidence that willpower is a limited resource, at least when people think that it’s a limited resource.”  I argue that perhaps it might be time to let go of limiting our willpower and to stop playing the goodliness as zero-sum game in favor of making more conscious food choices.

The full NPR article can be found here.

Things to think about the next time you go grocery shopping.



The Grist: What a More Sustainable American Food System Would Look Like

Photo via The Grist, Artwork by Amelia Bates

The Grist posted a great article and interactive graphic on what the American food system would look like if it were to take a more sustainable approach.  This piece is a part of the greater series, The United States of Sustainability, a project looking to find individuals in every state who is breaking the status quo away from our current food system and simultaneously addressing the issues facing our food system.

From pizza in Seattle, cheese in Wisconsin (obviously), to bugs in Massachusetts (not so obvious), the interactive piece sheds light on some the innovative work being done state-by-state.  At the end of her article, Eve Andrews posits an interesting question when comparing the larger scope issue of the flaws of the American food system with the small-scale work that individuals are accomplishing that contributes to fixing the problems.

“When there are so many problems, how do you pick which one to tackle first?”

I completely agree with her summation that in reality, there is no one definite solution.  It is undoubtedly true that the work that these individuals are doing, even if it just local to their state or city, is a step in the right direction and a step away from mass food production and the ills of the current American food system.

Head on over to The Grist and give the series a whirl.



Putting it on the table…

Welcome to On the Table…a blog diving into the world of food politics, hot topics, the big issues.  My name is Erica, and I am a law school graduate, yoga teacher, and food nut looking to get my feet wet in the food world.  This blog will serve as a resource and hub on food issues, featuring my own book reviews, responses to articles, repostings of the current big issues as I come across them, and obviously much more as the blog evolves.  Please feel free to comment, engage in conversation, or contact me about On the Table.  I am excited to begin this venture and dive into furthering my own knowledge on food, and share it with the world.  So welcome to the table, the conversation will be delicious.