As the United States' government shuts down over one political party's reluctance to allow health care coverage for poor people, it is fitting to spend a few minutes thinking about health and the way Americans eat.
In a recent column at The Guardian, Jill Filipovic warned that the way Americans eat is killing us and something has to change.
Unfortunately, all of the change has fallen on the backs of consumers. In a nation where close to a tenth of the population has diabetes and heart disease is the number-one killer, our food system is a national disgrace and a public health disaster. Yes, many of us could make small choices to eat better, and many of us have indeed adjusted our dietary habits in reaction to increased information about healthy eating and increased access to healthy food. But choosing to eat well isn't an easily available option for many Americans, in large part because of structures implemented by big food companies and their agents in Congress. When a corporate food culture is setting us up to eat large portions or heavily-processed, densely-caloric, low-nutritional food, "personal responsibility" isn't going to cut it.
Filipovic goes on to explain "personal responsibility" is not a realistic solution when many Americans face such limited options when it comes to healthy food choices:
Some of the worst foods are also the cheapest, thanks to farm subsidies that artificially depress the price of corn, which is processed into a wide array of products. Even Americans who can physically access grocery stores that carry fresh and healthy food often can't afford it. And with Congressional Republicans trying to cut $4bn from the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP, also known as "food stamps") which benefits the poorest Americans, the ability to pay a little more to buy vegetables and brown rice instead of frozen pizza – not to mention the time to prepare a wholesome meal – is simply out of reach for too many of us.
It's particularly out of reach for low-income mothers, who bear both the brunt of family food preparation and also blame for things like childhood obesity and diabetes. Children with single parents receive more than a quarter of SNAP benefits, and single parents receive 13%. These families aren't exactly rolling in the free food money, either: the average SNAP payment amounts to just under $1.50 per meal.
That's not much to feed your family on, and with some of the least healthy foods the most affordable it's no wonder rates of illness caused by poor eating track with poverty.
Even outside of low-income households, eating nutritiously can be a challenge. The explosion of chain restaurants has put many smaller places out of business, hurting local cultures and erasing eating traditions. The US is a big place, and McDonald's is hardly the heart and soul of our food culture; but the more that TGI Friday's replaces local haunts or makes their businesses unsustainable, the more homogenous our plates look.
Helping shed a light on this fallacy that only consumers are to blame for health problems is a just released short film by author Anna Lappé, Food Mythbusters and Corporate Accountability International. The film exposes this myth that personal responsibility is the only thing stopping Americans from eating healthier, focusing especially on the health of children and the way the fast food industry uses manipulative marketing to hook kids on unhealthy processed foods.
In a post at Civil Eats, Lappé had this to say about her inspiration behind this project:
The food industry knows that targeting kids is effective: Hook ‘em early, and you build brand loyalty for life. Plus, kids are more vulnerable to ads. Their young minds are unable to put up the kinds of defenses to advertising we can.
Now, the food industry likes to blame parents for the epidemic of diet-related illnesses. Sure, Big Food may spend nearly $2 billion a year on marketing directly to children and teens, but it’s ultimately parents who are choosing what their kids eat and drink … right?
Of course, it’s the parents’ responsibility to make sure their children are healthy. But it’s also our nation’s responsibility to make sure the environment we parent in doesn’t make it difficult, and in some cases impossible, to do so.
Let’s be real: Big Food and its PR machine are pushing high-fat, high-salt, high-sugar foods and drinks on our kids all the time — the very products at the heart of this generation’s health problems.
And while we parents are charged with ensuring our kids make healthy choices, our work is being made more difficult for us by the advertising might of Big Food. The reality is kids are bombarded at every age with exploitative advertising telling them junk food is cool to eat.
In a country where we waste some 40% of our food, yet somehow still manage to eat so much we have an obesity epidemic, it's clear that there are more problems than people just choosing to eat too much. That is not to say many Americans couldn't benefit from portion control and more self-control, but our food system is so complex, it is useful to see efforts like this video highlighting the other factors that play a role in our growing health crisis.