Nobody should be surprised by the latest “news” from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which finds in a recent report that Americans fail miserably to follow the government’s dietary guidelines. The Argus Leader reports:
Most Americans fail to follow the government’s dietary guidelines and are spending more of their income on fatty foods such as pizza and French fries at the expense of healthier fruits, vegetables and whole grains…
In helping consumers meet the guidelines, the government breaks down each dollar the public spends on food and where it should go to meet these requirements. Shoppers fail to spend enough on all vegetables except for potatoes. The same outcome was found for whole fruits, where consumers spend less than 5 cents of every dollar compared to the recommended 17 cents.
At the same time, USDA researchers found 9.2 cents of every dollar went toward unsweetened frozen goods such as pizza and French fries and about 6.7 cents was spent on packaged sweets such as cookies and candy bars. Shoppers living in the Northeast and West typically bought healthier foods compared to residents residing in the Midwest or the South.
The typical “free” market response to this is, “What place does the government have in regulating our food choices anyway? If people choose to spend their money on less-than-optimal foods, isn’t that their business and nobody else’s?”
This is certainly the tack taken by opponents (inside SD and outside) of new federal guidelines for school lunches that require less meet, fewer carbohydrates, and more fruits and vegetables. As we all know, kids love cookies and pizza. So what right does the government have to tell them, “Sorry, you can’t eat that, have some broccoli instead?” AND the switch to a higher-produce, lower-carb meal template costs more to boot, seeing as how fruits and veggies are spendier.
On the surface, this seems an argument both elegant and convincing, as do most “free” market arguments. The frame of “consumer choice” is certainly the one Ruth Comer, assistant vice-president of media relations with Hy-Vee, is using when she says, “The onus isn’t just on the customer to seek these items out, but it’s also on the store to make it easy for customers to find and buy healthier foods.”
True enough. And it’s heartening to see a for-profit business champion healthy eating, since it’s so profitable to peddle junk food (see below). But – as is usually the case – there are more forces at work here than simple consumer choice.
For one thing, humans’ evolutionary makeup predisposes us to make the most of scarce (in nature at least) fat, sugars, and salt. This leads us to an addictive relationship with these three substances such that, neurochemically speaking, their effects on the brain mirror hard drugs like heroine and cocaine. But in the modern world, where we have constant access to these once-scarce resources, our mental hardwiring sabotages us. We eat far more than we need, with few built-in physiological safeguards. And so more than two-thirds of American adults are overweight or obese.
For another, the U.S. government heavily subsidizes unhealthy foods. Our corn subsidies for instance effectively bankroll not only the corn industry, but the meat industry (which depends overwhelmingly on corn as feed) and the artificial sweetener industry as well (high fructose corn syrup anyone?). Fruits and vegetables don’t receive nearly that level of support, probably because they don’t have powerful lobbies pushing for favorable legislation like big meat and and big corn do. And that lack of political clout artificially deflates meat and corn prices while artificially inflating prices for fruits and vegetables.
For a third, my food choices have effects beyond my body. With the better part of 70% of the adult population overweight, we are beginning to see the impact dietary choices have on U.S. society at large. According to the Center for Disease Control, heart disease, which is largely related to lifestyle factors, is the leading cause of death in America. Moreover, heart disease cost the U.S. $316.4 billion in 2010 in medical costs and lost productivity, not to mention upwards of 600,000 deaths. Public health figures like this are especially relevant as the fight over expanding Medicaid to more than 40,000 uninsured South Dakotans heats up.
I don’t absolve the individual of all responsibility for his or her dietary habits – I myself lost 100 lbs. in a year, all by eating less and exercising. But when 1 in 5 SD children don’t even know where their next meal is going to come from, it seems almost willfully perverse to me that our government should be enforcing food policies that take advantage of people’s evolutionary addictions and socialize the costs of poor dietary “choices” while privatizing the profits. Until we change those policies, studies like the USDA’s most recent will remain eminently, frustratingly commonplace.
–Tom Emanuel is the Executive Director of the SDPJC