American ObesityThe New York Times has again featured a great story on the American diet by Michael Pollan.  This one is called: You are what you grow.  A researcher goes to the supermarket to check calories per dollar, a way to measure how low-income families make food choices.  This is not to say that every poor person reads the nutrition sidebar on a package in order to maximize calories.  It’s more the task of assuaging today’s needs–what will “go around” the dinner table more than once, and satisfies everyone  enough that their stomach doesn’t growl when they try to sleep at night.  The second part of this shopping is that processed, value-added food products convey status or identity: the choice of one breakfast cereal or soft drink over another.  Yes, it starts early.  The third thing, not mentioned by Mr. Pollan, is that food preparation of fresh food is more time consuming than popping a TV dinner into the microwave.  And it’s not just the cooking, either, but the cleanup, the management of the refrigerator, and so forth.

Citrus FruitI’ve noticed this myself: you can buy a box of sixteen corn dogs (8-16 meals) for four dollars, or a box of microwaveable pastry sandwiches for your office lunch (four to a box) for two dollars.  With that can of soft drink you purchase for $1.50, that’s a two-dollar lunch for four days of the week.  Same with the fast food dollar menu: one sandwich + one soda is Two-plus-Tax.  Never mind that it’s not good for you: the trans-fats have already come out, so why worry?

Mr. Pollan relates this sad state of American cuisine to U.S. agricultural policy, which does not subsidize the production of fresh fruits and vegetables, but rather those of corn (ergo, corn syrup), soybeans, and wheat.  And as he said in an earlier article “Unhappy Meals” for the NYT, we need to substitute real food for “nutritious” food products: “Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.”

This is difficult to do for the poor: Mr. Pollan notes that fresh fruit and vegetable prices have risen 40% between 1985 and 2000, while the real price of a can of soda has declined 23%. 

Not only are subsidies a large cost in the federal budget, this policy continues to affect the prices of health care, (think diabetes management, for just one) public health, environmental issues, and energy use.  The energy cost of making a snack cake is a lot larger than the cost of producing a bag of apples.  Our farm bill is an unsustainable piece of legislation.  It’s past time for all of us to write our legislators and tell them to change priorities.  We might even get to eat a decent lunch.

Photos: MSNBC; Neptune-LunarPages; University of Maine