Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Now, back to the convention

Yesterday I briefly mentioned a panel on food policy. The official title was "The Obesity Epidemic: Getting Beyond Individual Choices." The presenters discussed subjects we've paid a lot of attention to here. Americans aren't getting fat because we are lazy and gluttonous by nature. It's because greedy people are doing it to us.

Sarah Samuels talked about the "food environment" in the schools. The lunches prepared by those cafeteria ladies we all remember -- the sloppy joes and mystery meat -- are still happening, but schools today are full of vending machines and snack carts and even actual fast food outlets, all there because of contracts with the schools that they now depend on for financing that the citizens don't care to provide out of tax money. And what are these commercial enterprises selling? You know the answer. Sugar, fat, starch -- empty calories.

There is no hope for national school nutrition standards right now (viz. our earlier discussion about Congressman Boehnert's heroic crusade to save the junk food purveyors from Communistic tyrrany, violating their God-given right to poison our kids) but California recently passed standards, and local districts can as well. This is something citizens can take on at the local level. Get off your expanding behind, get down to the local school board, and make them get the junk food out of your schools.

Susan Roberts explained why we are eating so much sugar. It's because the U.S. government guarantees a high price to corn farmers, and the more they grow, the bigger the subsdies they collect. As a result, they keep growing more and more corn -- far more than we need. Some of it gets dumped on world markets at low prices, destroying the livelihoods of farmers in poor countries, and a lot of it gets turned into high fructose corn syrup, which becomes surgary soft drinks. The big food processors love to sell this stuff because it's very cheap to make, and they can sell it at a huge profit. So they market it aggressively, among other ways, by placing vending machines in schools. Today, according to Dr. Roberts, Americans consume the equivalent of 557 12-oz cans of soda per person, every year -- that's every man, woman and child, including babies. Teenage boys drink, on average, 913 cans a year. That's poison. It's killing us.

Why not subsidize spinach farmers, she asks? The subsidies obviously aren't going to preserve family farms, they're going to huge agribusinesses. We need an agricultural policy that rewards growing diverse, nutritious crops sold in short supply chains, mostly to local markets. That takes out the huge commercial interests that want to sell us processed foods made from the cheapest possible ingredients that can be mass marketed using cartoon characters. Then there are environmental issues, the consequences for social organization of the countryside, and the benefits for people in distant lands who are desperately poor. This just might be one of the most important issues we face.

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