What We Talk About When We Talk About Food

In her recent post on the New York Times health blog “Well,” Roni Caryn Rabin reported on a study suggesting that watching four hours of TV per day might not just be boring, anti-social, or mindnumbing, but actually dangerous: Scottish researchers discovered that heart attacks and other heart problems doubled in subjects who spent two or more hours everyday in front of a screen compared with those who don’t. And that’s not the only study to advance a correlation between TV habits and health problems. Scientists think that the body undergoes damaging metabolic and enzyme transformations after habitual episodes of, what Rabin calls, “extended sitting.”

Meanwhile, a few weeks ago, my colleague Sophie Egan wrote about a novel approach to addressing the childhood obesity epidemic: healthier, fresher snacks in school vending machines that make nutritious food cool and nutritionally empty food lame. The idea is to start training kids early to eat right and eat well. If the idea works, they will acquire the right habits, lose weight, and eventually grow up to lead healthier lives. 

At first, the Scottish study and the school campaign don’t seem to have much in common. One brings to light the health risks posed by personal, cultural habits. The other suggests that we can positively influence young people by encouraging them to eat well. But, both articles are underwritten by a gospel of personal responsibility about food choices that can obscure what’s behind contemporary health crises and inspire only piecemeal solutions. 

The gospel goes something like this: people have unhealthy habits (they don’t exercise; they eat badly), scientists study and media publicize these habits, and it falls on consumers and their community to change them. 

But this gospel divests health and food from politics. Those under the gospel's sway can ignore the historically-entrenched constellation of corporate, industrial interests that benefit from American obesity and its ostensible solutions.

Talking about those industries and this industrial-food-and-diet-complex seems like a way out of excessively small and local thinking and problem solving. Many food writers, Michael Pollan chief among them, make the connection. And Pollan admirably combines healthy living tips with a broad critique of existing food infrastructure and cultural habits of mind and practice. 

We ought to take his lead. Food and public health are complicated economic problems with complex political solutions. Instead of advocating limited and individual behavioral changes, we ought to start thinking bigger: aggressively regulating industrial agriculture and animal husbandry, and creating opportunities for small, local farmers to establish viable businesses growing and raising food well, for two examples. 

Sure, we should get off the couch and kids should start eating carrots (in season!). But even if almost everyone changed the way they exercised or ate, there would still be an unsustainable industrial food system exploiting workers and putting the bottom line before public health. 

Overinvesting in personal changes can lead to small-minded thinking and prevent voters and activists from taking on the economic structure and institutions at the heart of the problem.

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