How to help people eat healthier without a government program

Marina Olson Writer, Ethika Politika
Font Size:

I love Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything. I use that book prodigiously while cooking, and could not find it more helpful. However, while I have nothing but respect for his ability to communicate the culinary arts, I must draw the line at agreement with his recent opinion on domestic food policy.

What upset Bittman is Oxfam’s Good Enough To Eat index. According to the results of this dietary analysis of 125 countries, while America performs well in food quality and affordability, we are sixth to last in healthy eating if you consider our rampant rates of diabetes and obesity. Now, this is pretty atrocious. However, when the countries with the lowest rates include Rwanda, Cambodia, and Laos, I think we can all agree that Bittman presents the results in a skewed manner to overemphasize American malnutrition, which at least involves nutrients of some kind.

It’s a threefold problem: what we actually process from healthy food is less than we might think, purchases made with food stamps aren’t limited to healthy food, and much of the public remains ignorant about how bad it is to eat junk. These problems, Bittman opines, would all go away if we simply had “an official government policy or agency responsible for coordinating and assuring that the nation’s investment in food and agriculture is for a nourishing and healthful food supply.”

Well, that escalated quickly.

Now, a kale and quinoa salad admittedly costs more than dinner at Taco Bell, and lack as certain high fructose corn syrup infused kick. Healthy food costs more because it substitutes “labor and intensive management for chemicals, the health and environmental costs of which are born by society.” High costs give those on food stamps an extra push towards the cheaper, tastier option. Who wants to cough up $4.00 for a bag of leaves? Moreover, as Roosevelt Institute fellow Lauren Servin argues, the American Farm Bill has provided an economic incentive to produce huge quantities of corn, foundational to processed foods, ethanol, and fuel — we subsidize poor food choices. As for educating the masses, it’s odd that our educational system has failed us here, considering the luck it has had in teaching math and literacy. We could always add it to the common core.

After observing the failure of the federal programs to control the purchases of its welfare beneficiaries, how about instead we subsidize farms that produce wholesome, rather than lucrative, crops? Critiquing the government’s ability to insist that we remain at the table until every last bite of squash is finished, Bittman calls on the government to save us from its own failure by creating a new regulatory agency. Does this make any sense?

But if we insist that the government remain out of our bedrooms, that was hardly an invitation to join us at the table. In fact, these trends make one wonder who’s actually sitting at the table at all, when study after study has indicated a strong correlation between family meals and healthful eating, while government mandates have less evidence on their behalf. The problem of healthy eating touches on many political fields, from welfare to education to socialized medicine, where the government is already deeply entrenched in providing the answers for its citizens.

Ultimately, the failure of federal policies in agriculture and welfare have led Bittman to the absurd solution of a government agency to fix them. Rather than inviting the government to have further regulatory say in our lives, instead we could attempt the radical idea of letting free citizens act freely by getting the government out of food production and allowing the market to play out. Why not get rid of some of the ways the government is making us less healthy? The reality is, government subsidies have given us low-cost food, but at the price of encouraging a glut of unhealthy options, rather than encouraging us to pay farmers a fair wage for their effort. Would food costs go up under this model? Probably. But if you really want those fifteen burgers, no one is stopping you from spending money on them.

Will some people eat poorly, increasing their risk of obesity and diabetes? Of course. But the choice should be theirs to make, and we should support an economic model that allows the community, not the government to direct food production. Perhaps then, rather than a call for more governmental regulation, we would instead see opinions in the New York Times calling for greater self-regulation and self-education. Maybe people could start with one of Bittman’s wonderful cookbooks.