Why “Let Them Eat Crap” Is Not the Answer to the Obesity Crisis

PolyfaceLast winter, I was invited to attend a nutrition class for low-income and disabled folks held by a local food bank, and I have not been able to write about it since.

But things have suddenly cleared up for me, and I know what I would like to say. I was jolted out of my confusion by a clumsy attempt in the Atlantic Monthly to blame Michael Pollan and his followers (e.g., people like me) for somehow retarding the junk food industry’s progress in creating better living through chemistry. You’ll see the connection in a moment, I promise.

First, the class. Although I went there intending to write an appreciative first-hand account of the food bank’s good work in the community, as I was watching the class, I grew increasingly (but quietly) disturbed. The lessons — and “lessons” they were — provided a short and painful tour through the arid world of what Michael Pollan has rightly criticized as “nutritionism” — dated concepts, an experience of food divorced from its cultural context, and not-so-subtle messages that the obese have only themselves and their poor choices to blame.

For someone like me who believes that environmental exposures like BPA can plausibly be linked to the dramatic rise in obesity, it was uncomfortable, and made only more so by my fast-developing allergy to all forms of fat shaming (which, as it turns out, is not such a great motivational tool after all. Shocker.).

The jury is really still out on the causes for the “obesity epidemic,” as a new brilliant article by David Berreby makes clear. When the public health folks finally lift nutrition sciences out of its squalling infancy, I doubt there will be enough accounting of the psychological harm done to millions of people — especially women — who have learned from the inescapable and constant nutrtition-y messages on “how to eat” and “what we should look like” to experience their own day-to-day through a lens of intermittent self-loathing and personal failure.

But back to the class: although the instructors were clearly well intentioned, well, we know where those lead. While I only got a snapshot of the overall curriculum from a single two-hour class, that session seemed obsessed with reducing fat, in a way that really has not been up-to-date, nutritionally, since at least the mid-90s. The lessons included a tediously detailed explanation of all the types of fats as well as, for one example, comparisons of the amount of dietary fats in low-fat versus regular dressings, exemplified by globby substances trapped in two test tubes that were dutifully passed around.

I was quietly horrified to contemplate how this lesson, should it be taken to heart, would drive class members to buy nasty-tasting, highly engineered, low-fat versions of dressings for their salads. Even the best bottled dressings, of course, are an oil and vinegar balance that requires chemical emulsifiers galore to keep the ingredients in suspension. Should one in fact choose to eat a healthy green salad, as the class was being cajoled to do, topping it with such gloppy coagulation would be enough to cure them of the impulse for quite some time. Not to mention that low-fat often means high-sugar, and almost certainly involves more laboratory than food.

The mostly minority, entirely low income, elderly and disabled class members handled it all with aplomb and grace, joking their way through an exercise in making unnecessarily sweet and complicated yogurt parfaits with layers of granola, yogurt and fruit preserves and gamely grinding up home-made hummus with tahini and canned chickpeas. (I, on the other hand, was childishly restless, wondering per the hummus: 1) um, how is this a “low-fat” food again? 2) why anyone bothering to go to the extraordinary trouble of making a readily available snack-dip wouldn’t use freshly cooked beans, so that they could taste the extra effort?)

In a side conversation while the “cooking” was going on, I learned that the elderly woman next to me, a grandmother of seven, was actually an accomplished and renowned cook among the group. She was on her way home after class to make an enormous batch of authentic Jamaican jerk chicken for the community’s party the following day, using her long-loved and reportedly delicious recipe, which I did manage to sweet-talk her into sharing with me. She should have taught the class, I muttered, sadly, to myself.

Why? Food as culture and as celebration. As the flavors of a people’s past, their ingenuity and history, their resources and adaptation. As a life-force and a gift.

Nutritionism does for the act of eating what Jazzercise did for dance: it sucks out the joy and narrative meaning and turns it into an exercise in forced jumping jacks rife with added potential for humiliation (remember the leotards we all wore?). In the same way, David Freedman’s antiseptic, condescending piece in the Atlantic Monthly is so caught up in his contempt for the arugula-eating food elitists allegedly swarming behind Michael Pollan, and so bought into an utterly simplistic and dated fat-avoidance strategy on obesity, that he misses the subject of food entirely.

His argument marshals so many straw men it’s like watching a parade of scarecrows traipsing through an Agribusiness cornfield: Whole Foods sells some junk food! Certain juice bar smoothies have a lot of calories! Pollan-ites have actually claimed that overpriced organic farmer’s market produce could feed the poor! His citations are almost entirely his own adventures in alternating healthier eateries with trips to MickeyDs. (He also repeatedly misuses “obesogenic,” a term with a rather specific definition, when what he really means is “fattening.”)

What he does get right is self-evident: of course it would be better if fast food purveyors started acting more responsibly and stopped marketing soda with sugar levels attuned to keep the most highly addicted users coming back for more. Of course it would be great if some portion of the marketing budgets of fast food companies went towards promoting healthier fare — though one has to question this given how Freedman rather mindlessly repeats standard industry lore concerning the flopped McLean.

Indeed, the pathetic stories about sneaking the fast food companies’ few health improvements into a small number of products make it seem uncannily like those moms who are so desperate for vegetables in their kids’ diets that they hide ground spinach in pancakes. But those moms, at least, are in the deception game on a temporary basis, until their child’s finickiness resolves or the kid goes off to college, whichever comes first.

On the other hand, if the fast food industry really can’t market healthier choices without turning off their customers, well, that’s a lot of sneakiness for marketing to conceal. A less enthusiastic cheerleader for industry than Freedman is might even see it as an upper bound — and not a high one — on the change that could come from that sector, especially given its historically keen interest in humdrum factors like profitability.

In the end, he makes the very mistake he accuses the Pollan-ites of making: he decides he knows what’s best for all of us, particularly the unwashed masses. “Let them eat crap,” Freedman says, while arrogantly, even angrily, prescribing what will work to change the eating habits of millions, because he knows what their problem is (too many fats and “bad” carbs) and he knows what they will eat (fast food). Problem solved.

Unfortunately for him, and despite publishing a book called “Food Rules,” Pollan is far more exploratory about which foods are best for us (though he does ask folks to, well, eat actual food). As I am an unrepentant devotee of Pollan’s, it just so happens that I recently finished his new book, Cooked, and it’s a far better read than Freedman’s screed.

Pollan’s latest tome is a love letter to the act of cooking, and to the historical, gustatory and communal aspects of food. The best passages in the book are the vivid descriptions of his adventures by the open-pit barbecue, his apprenticeship with a mistress of the braise, and his conversations with a spunky nun who dedicates herself to the art of traditional cheesemaking. There are a few recipes, and inspiring passages meant to open up the possibilities for your own kitchen, true, but nowhere does he suggest that we all need to turn our basements into cheese cellars, or that the ideas in the book are a policy solution to address, say, the crisis of poor nutrition afflicting children raised on fast food.

Instead, he proposes that cooking, and understanding the process and patience required to prepare foods, is a fundamental part of nourishing human connection in a family, or in a tribe, perhaps going back to the pre-historic period given the need to cook — and share — meat around a fire. Moreover, the very process of cooking or fermenting foods creates new substances in them, including flavanoids in aromatics like garlic and onions that ward off disease, or the biota that spring into existence in live yogurt and help to protect our gut.

More traditional modes of food preparation, as it turns out, may have benefits for health that we are only beginning to understand. It follows, sadly, that processed food is both microbially dead and likely incomplete: we can’t engineer nutritional components to add back into foods when we don’t even understand them, and much of how food operates for health is a mystery still grounded in a (beautiful) enigma.

Whatever is making us so sick since just the 1980s must be relatively new in our relationship with food. Yet I would wager we have yakked more about our health, as a species, over that same time period than for all of human history before: we have publishing empires dedicated to the latest news and trends on health and nutrition, and no shortage of advice on eating, health and (lord knows) body image. Despite all this, we are facing serious public health crises, many of which can be linked to food.

Perhaps we should spend less time and energy on prescribing how people should eat and spend more time making good food. We’ll likely figure out one day that the causes of our health challenges are both more surprising and more complex than we ever knew, and that the solutions were right in front of our mouth. In the no-duh category: yes, we should all, including me, exercise more regularly. And, sure, the big food companies have an important role to play, if they will do so.

But I can’t help feeling that Pollan is onto something compelling to both my stomach and soul, a practice essential for the act of being human and living more responsibility on this bountiful planet. Making time to make a decent braise — brown the meat, dice vegetables, brown them in the pan, add back the meat, the wine, the stock and herbs, and simmer for hours, while the house fills up with heavenly aroma — is a meditation on transformation just as Pollan promises. Food this slow becomes, in the cooking, an act of both respect and community.

And let’s give more credit where credit is due. Low-income people may be cash-strapped, but they also know good food. Listening more deeply to people who do this kind of cooking for their own communities — really getting the details down for how they make their particular heirloom recipe for delicious jerk chicken — well, it seems to me that beats either fast food or a nutrition class, every time.

Dinner.

Dinner.

###

I’m indebted to Tom Philpott of Mother Jones for his thoughtful replies to Freedman, including a half-hour radio debate, and for pointing me to the wonderful Berreby piece.

For the short ribs, I used this basic recipe, plus Pollan’s sound advice from the book. I poured in BioNaturae organic canned plum tomatoes from a BPA-free can, and short-cutted the laborious chopping process by leaving things chunky. I also added less salt and more stock than called for. Served over fried polenta.

Post-script:

A further note is required to reply to the unsubtle charges of elitism in Freedman’s article.

My personal perspective on food does play right into the hands of someone like Freedman, as my family prefers organic and beyond-organic foods, like the Polyface Farms beef in the photo. These foods are costly, there’s no two ways about it. And it’s more work, albeit pleasant work, to go to farmer’s markets, arrange for CSA deliveries or pick-ups, and to track down really fresh ingredients.

As I see it, we have the money to spend on these things, and we hope that our investment pays off, in part, by helping in a small way to generate more consumer demand at this end of the marketplace. Buying grass-fed beef is a luxury, certainly, but as far as luxury goods go, it feels more moral than most. We also buy less meat because of its higher price, and make it stretch further over a week.

It’s also the case that government subsidies for all the wrong kinds of commodities and farming practices keep some prices artificially low while smaller, multi-product farms suffer. So our purchase power is swimming upstream against some pretty powerful counter-pressures, making it all the more important to support the practices we prefer.

More importantly, the point about cooking — or even about anything you do for yourself — is that it builds an enduring skill, while making the best use of more wholesome ingredients. A bag of potatoes is still a far better use of a dollar than a bag of potato chips or a container of fast food fries. The costs are scalable to budget, and if more money comes along, you can always upgrade to, say, organic potatoes. Or try to grow your own in trash can (or better yet, wooden barrel), as I just saw on Pinterest.

After all, a drive in window asks nothing of us, while cooking is a valuable habit that must be acquired to make use of the world as it is. Freedman’s suggestion that our health problems can be solved if someone else will just fix (marginally) better food for us misses the point.

There’s a reason that the food industry has spent the last 20 years in the lab, manufacturing flavors, gums and additives and other substitutes to save itself the costs of actually feeding us. Taking back the power to feed ourselves real food affordably will require a considerable shift in government rules, consumer buying habits, and in our ability to take the time to cook and spend time with family. It will likely also require a raise in the minimum wage, better supports overall for families, and economic incentives for farmers to improve, rather than destroy, their local environment.

These changes may be hard to attain or even unattainable given the relentless economic pressures faced by so many families. But that’s a problem with the structure of our lives, and not just our food supply. It also, as it so happens, is the same problem the fast food companies have been profiting from for the past 30 years. The solution is unlikely to lie with them.

Who’s a Moocher, Really?

Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts,...

Mooch much?

Romney’s revealing slip at a private fundraiser has already occasioned a lot of commentary, including a piece by David Brooks bemoaning his campaign’s “incompetence.”

Brooks straightforwardly addresses some of Romney’s errant notions. First, the idea that those who get government money mainly vote for Democrats is false of course, as progressives often bemoan: instead, many are veterans and working class whites who tend to vote Republican. And he points out that these alleged “moochers” also includes millions of retirees. Gosh, vets, old people and poor people – why are you guys always on the take?

Brooks generously says that this is not the real Romney, but a gussied-up campaign version of a Romney-bot. But it seems to me that Romney’s comments instead reveal how uncritically he’s consumed the GOP’s “job creator” Kool-Aid.

One undercurrent of his comments is that unlike the “moocher” class, he and any other people rich enough to attend a big-money Republican fundraiser earned their extraordinary wealth, with bootstraps or otherwise. Of course, Romney perpetually appears not to notice that he was born on third base, which is one of the reasons he keeps committing the same gaffe over and over and over again, like hari kari inflicted with a sharpened silver spoon.

But even beyond his lamentable personal arrogance, the suggestion that he deserves what he has is worth examining. As a governor’s son, handed any opportunity in the world, Romney chose the easiest and most lucrative, but heartless, way to make lots of moola: private equity. This says something at least about his character, in a way that makes Brooks’ assessment look overly generous.

What is private equity, anyway, and is it something of real value, such that someone like Romney is morally better than a moocher? The basic model for private equity firms is to buy a company, in order to “fix” and sell it. The catch? “Fixing” it generally means you have to do one or both of two things: increase revenues or cut costs. To increase revenues is hard, requiring great management and long-term investment. So private equity firms cut costs – providing a short-term answer for investors wanting high, fast returns.

The upshot is that most private equity deals take advantage of tax writeoffs for corporate debt, leveraging a company and risking its health to improve profits for the equity firm. The focus on quick returns almost guarantees this approach. Does this add value? Perhaps sometimes, but more times than not it mainly pads the pockets of investors.

Does it generate “efficiencies”? Who can say, really? Efficiencies for whom and for what purpose? The received wisdom is that anything that makes someone a dollar expresses value, but in societal or moral terms that’s often far from the truth.

As Mother Jones has since revealed, the video in question was filmed at a $50,000-per-plate fundraiser at private equity manager Rick Leder’s house. Here’s what the New York Times had to say about Leder and his financial value-added:

Mr. Leder personifies the debates now swirling around this lucrative corner of finance. To his critics, he represents everything that’s wrong with this setup. In recent years, a large number of the companies that Sun Capital has acquired have run into serious trouble, eliminated jobs or both. Since 2008, some 25 of its companies—roughly one of every five it owns—have filed for bankruptcy. Among the losers was Friendly’s, the restaurant chain known for its Jim Dandy sundaes and Fribble shakes. (Sun Capital was accused by a federal agency of pushing Friendly’s into bankruptcy last year to avoid paying pensions to the chain’s employees; Sun disputes that contention.) Another company that sank into bankruptcy was Real Mex, owner of the Chevy’s restaurant chain. In that case, Mr. Leder lost money for his investors not once, but twice.

And Leder evidently also throws racy parties that require a lot of chlorine for the pool (yawn). So there’s that.

But even setting aside for a moment, if we can, this seedy world of hilariously cliched corporate raiders, why should we treat Republican’s moral assumption that corporate earnings are real, earned, and genuine as sacrosanct?

Obama got in some hot water a little earlier in the summer and was much-derided at the Republican convention for an honest and unremarkable statement about how the money earned by businesses depends on social investments by the government — i.e., all of us — for success. Really, this is fact, and not particularly controversial.

As Obama would know, it’s black letter law that companies may be sued wherever they do business because they “avail” themselves of roads, bridges, and the mail. In addition to the obvious examples Obama was describing, every time an uninsured low-income worker gets sick, and goes to a hospital for charity care, we all subsidize their care (an issue that “Obamacare” will help address by giving that person real insurance at last).

Every time the federal government makes college more affordable for students, or helps low-income families through Healthy Start, the workers of tomorrow become better equipped for a challenging future. Every family that gets a (ridiculously paltry) childcare tax credit is a family that can better afford to work. And every time a government safety or health rule saves a worker from being injured, that person can go to work tomorrow.

But it’s deeper than that as well. Guess who uses our court system, mostly? Businesses, suing other businesses. Without the power to enforce contracts, these arrangements would be enforced at the end of a gun, as in many less tenable economies around the world. A transparent, accountable marketplace is the sine qua non for a productive and stable economy.

And on the other side of the equation, it’s clear that corporations are good at producing stuff, and that a vibrant business economy is good for workers and companies. But there’s also a lot that’s wrong with the way corporate incentives are currently structured. This should be a much bigger part of the debate about the contributions of the so-called “job creators.”

Due to our shareholder incentive structure and a lack of meaningful rules for corporate charters, a corporation’s current job is to squeeze a dollar until it hurts (somebody else). This drive towards the bottom line often produces great suffering for workers, especially low-income workers in punishing, poorly regulated jobs like those in slaughterhouses or on farms.

There’s widespread financial predation as well – the Department of Justice and Attorneys’ General landmark settlement against the banks earlier this summer, though enormous, was the tip of the iceberg compared to the devastation in the housing market from no-document loans, robo-signing and other schemes, and from a derivatives economy that was – and is still – structured to produce careless profit-taking by Wall Street.

And of course there’s environmental harm – the “externalities” that businesses wish we would just clean up instead of them. And sometimes they dirty it up on purpose. In the case of chemical flame retardants, for example, the industry basically invented a need and poisoned every living room and public space in America with cancer-causing toxins, just to sell more pounds of their stuff.

Then there’s the corporate capture of lawmakers through campaign contributions, which puts decisions by government in hoc to the wealthy. The big dollars flow to the committee chairs who preside over issues of interest to companies: most of the same Republicans who mouth off against big government apparently see no problem when these companies attempt to purchase that government for a price.

My point isn’t that corporations are evil. They are structured to be profit-maximizing. But the equation of that with the high moral ground is puzzling, given the dubious mix of activities in which companies often engage. And what often gets lost in the debate about government funding versus corporate freedom is the hypocrisy: corporations readily exploit government money, lands and resources whenever they can, while criticizing any attempt to balance their often-rapacious activities with the common good.

Yet corporations, more than almost anything actually, are mere creatures of the state and governing law. The tax incentives that reward debt and leverage, and the policies that are keeping borrowed money cheap basically forever? Those are government policies, of course. The outrageous, anti-American and anti-middle class policy that capital gains are taxed lower than income? Government again. A system of tax loopholes so porous that the top 10 most profitable U.S. companies paid an average federal tax rate of just 9 percent last year? We built that too.

I don’t really expect that most businesses will have much of a social conscience, because we (unfortunately) haven’t asked them to, by and large. And most people are just doing what it takes to get by, within the rules they were handed. But if you want to claim a kind of moral superiority, well, then forgive me for asking a few questions about how you came by that dollar. If you did it on the backs of workers, through fraud and predation, or by poisoning people or the planet, um, not so much.

And if you chose the private equity route – leveraging companies, gutting assets like workers’ pension funds, and often driving them out of business and pocketing the barely taxed proceeds, then I’m sorry, smug and superior are off the table for you. In fact, you have some explaining to do.

The posturing about the specialness of corporate-earned wealth comes from politicians’ clubby intimacy with the uber-class of the one-percenters – political donors, Wall Street barons, and ultra-rich. And Romney’s comments make clear not just his “incompetence,” but the narrowness of his version of who is righteous in America, and who is not.

In contrast, old-timey conservatives used to routinely acknowledge a role for even strong government in creating the rules and social conditions for businesses to thrive. But this new-fangled GOP doesn’t want to talk about grounding a strong economy in transparency and accountability — they seem only to know a particularly mean-spirited version of us versus them. As Clinton pointed out, this inability to compromise or see the whole picture makes for broken politics and political decision-making.

So we have to fix it. We should use this moment to call into question the thoughtless sanctimony of the discourse around the value of the corporation. We created these things, and if they really are “people,” then the least we can do is require them to act like decent citizens.

Show me a business that cleans up after itself, treats its workers fairly, gives back to the community, is transparent and accountable in its dealings, and creates a well-made, environmentally sound product, and I’ll happily nominate its owners for the moral high ground. Or for political office, because we need more folks with backbone in those jobs.

If that’s not you, though, please step down off that soapbox — …slowly…slowly... — and do try to keep a lid on it about how much mooching the rest of us really do.