If the snowy weather and the economy weren't enough, now there is one more thing for New Yorkers to complain about. Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s sugary beverages ban goes into effect March 12. The New York City Board of Health approved the ban in September, making all sweetened drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces illegal in restaurants, fast-food chains, theaters, office cafeterias, and delis. How has this policy grown out of a widening disparity in economic classes? In terms of the food industry, consumers inhabit two completely separate Americas, that of the privileged and that of the disadvantaged.
It is a fact that the cheapest foods in America tend to be the worst for us, and the most mineral/vitamin rich foods are extremely expensive. Over the past 30 years we have seen a dramatic boom in the organic food industry. With books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma having become so commonly discussed on college campuses that to read it is almost a right of passage, knowledge has spread about the real cost of industrial agriculture. Among the highly educated/economically advantaged debate has emerged about the value of eating organic vegetables, responsibly raised meat, and locally sourced seasonal food. People have reacted against the mass production of monocultures and the millions of dollars in subsidies that the government pays farmers to overproduce corn and other crops. This system incentivizes consumers to buy cheap processed foods that are high in calories and bad for our health. Many have tried to reduce their participation in the system entirely by urban farming, buying into a local coop, or becoming vegan/vegetarian etc.
Yet the cost of these alternative food sources/lifestyles makes it extremely unfeasible for the majority of Americans to participate in. When you are trying to put food on the table for a family of four on a $20,000 — $40, 000 annual income you are going to buy what is cost effective and fulfilling, and not care about your “local” footprint. Having ethics when it comes to food is a luxury. One major consequence of crappy food being cheaper is that 68.8% of U.S. adults are either overweight or obese in America. On one hand, Bloomberg’s policy is nobly trying to combat a huge societal problem. On the other it reflects a top down approach of wealthy elites who say that the poor don’t know what’s best for them.
But are peoples’ choices to drink soda really born out of ignorance or simple economic incentives? Bloomberg said on MSNBC, “We’re not taking away anybody’s right to do things, we’re simply forcing you to understand that you have to make the conscious decision to go from one cup to another cup.” While his intentions are good, he often comes off as patronizing.
A major problem with the ban is that it is arbitrary. It only applies to restaurants, fast-food chains, theaters, delis, and office cafeterias but not grocery stores or convenience stores. The fact that 7-Eleven will continue to sell the iconic Big Gulp without any penalty is pretty hypocritical. Furthermore a study conducted in August shows that this law will disproportionately effect black and Latino New Yorkers, especially those who own small businesses. If the whole point of the ban is to fight obesity, why does Bloomberg shy away from attacking the huge corporations that market an unhealthy product to low-income communities? It seems that addressing portion size is like treating a symptom and not fighting the root cause.
Obesity is a problem in America. However, I can’t help but feel that the soda ban is a quick fix for an over simplified problem. What are Bloomberg’s true objectives with this ban? Obesity is traced to many different factors and not one single product. Wouldn't money be better spent on increasing the financing for physical education in public schools rather than limiting peoples’ personal liberties? Both sides of the debate are compelling.