Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Golden Rule, err, Arches

Today this story in the Daily News was published, outlining an often-ignored danger of living in the inner city: fast food. This is not exactly news, of course, but at least it's being discussed more often, and publicly. Inner city residents have little to no access to fresh produce, but almost limitless, cheap, high-calorie, nutritionless industrial fast food options. Why? Easy: Cost.

Asking "why" again, though, is far more disturbing. Our government, lobbied heavily by various players in the agribusiness-industrial complex, has constructed a farm bill, and has adopted agricultural policies that subsidize the raw materials of this grossly profitable industry. Earlier this year, David Leonhardt of the New York Times put together this chart based on data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics:

The cost of "food" has gone up, but the cost of junk food has fallen dramatically. Fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and seafood prices have risen steadily, but sodas, notably, have fallen consistently. This is not hard to explain: soda is made of high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavors, and water (if it's diet, then it's just novel calorie-less rearrangements of corn anyway). Corn is subsidized heavily by the government. Soda producers can thus buy the raw inputs under cost, and the final price of their product falls.

Fast food is just another result of the heavy subsidization of commodity crops that are used as cheap raw inputs. This is making us fatter (yet malnourished), devastating the environment, and leading to a public health crisis. Yet in all this talk of health care reform, not a whisper about this topic. It's political suicide for two reasons:

1. Massive campaign contributions by agri-giants, and
2. Demonizing over 50% of the population (and I'm using an extremely conservative estimate) who are overweight, doesn't win any votes.

But according to the CDC, obesity related healthcare costs may have reached $78.5 BILLION, in 1998. That was 10 years ago. And since then, obesity rates have steadily risen. You do the math.

Mr. Leonheardt had another column in last Sunday's NYTimes magazine as well, and continued with this theme. "The debate over health care reform has so far revolved around how insurers, drug companies, doctors, nurses and government technocrats might be persuaded to change their behavior. And for the sake of the economy and the federal budget, they do need to change their behavior. But there has been far less discussion about how the rest of us might also change our behavior. It’s as if we have little responsibility for our own health. We instead outsource it to something called the health care system"


1 comment:

  1. That last comment from the Times Magazine stayed with me as well. It's an extension of the syndrome whereby we treat Mevacor, etc. as proxies for our willpower.