Those of you who follow me on Twitter probably witnessed last weekend’s debate between @DCeventjunkie (hereafter referred to as DCE) and I about the role of the federal government in solving the nation’s weight problem. For those of you who didn’t, here’s what went down.
The fun started Saturday night, when DCE posted this: “I’m seriously considering getting into politics – those of a food kind. The govt is responsible 4 the US obesity epidemic & it’s frightful.”
Having worked on agriculture and nutrition issues for a few years now, I would never argue that the federal government has no role to play in this debate. We should do a better job of educating people through programs like USDA extension service, the public schools (to a degree), the WIC and food stamp programs and advertising. We should also make sure that people have access to produce and other healthy choices, by eliminating food deserts and encouraging programs like farm-to-school.
But to argue that the primary blame for the obesity epidemic in America rests on the government’s shoulders is ridiculous. Our nation’s poundage problem is directly related to our busy lifestyles, our financial means and our own choices. So I replied: “@dceventjunkie I’m sure USDA/FDA could do better, but people choose what food they put into their mouths, not the government.”
From there, things became a little…intense. DCE responded “@CapHillStyle B.S. Who makes what affordable? Who determines what is available for us to consume? Who SELLS the public False info/stats??”
At this point, I should have walked away. Because any person who believes that the government is in the business of stocking grocery store shelves or that there is a vast conspiracy to provide people with false information (even though it’s usually the gov’t funding the research that determines which foods cause cancer, heart disease, etc.) is not going to change their mind because of little old me. But I didn’t, and the debate continued for a full day. You can read the whole thing on my Twitter page, if you’re so inclined.
I am by no means a Ron Paul-supporting, strict-constructionist Libertarian. But I do believe that at some point, no matter how much education, access and warning you provide, people make their own choices. And this is especially true about the food we put in our bodies.
Show me the person who doesn’t know that fried foods, fast food, junk food and sugared sodas are bad for their health. Show me the person who doesn’t know that the calorie counts and nutritional information are published on the back of the box/can/package. Show me the overweight person who hasn’t heard that the “secret” to weight loss is to eat less and move more.
That being said, it is hard to do better. It takes time and energy to cook a meal, and at the end of a long day, it is the last thing you want to do. Buying healthier food takes effort and discipline, and if you’re on a budget, it takes a willingness (and the time) to clip coupons and find the best deals. And it is damn hard to tell children that they can’t have the sugary cereal that they saw on TV or that they need to eat their vegetables. If it were easy, we’d all be pillars of health with normal BMIs.
But as bad as our eating and exercise habits have become over the past two decades, there is some light at the end of the tunnel.
Most major grocery store chains (including Wal-Mart and Target) now stock healthier options and organic products. We’re also learning more about where our food comes from and that we need more fiber, fewer preservatives and more vegetables. And while government does have a role to play in continuing and encouraging this change, the most powerful player in the food game is the consumer.
People are demanding better choices, more nutritional information and improved access and the retailers are listening. Because the stores will stock what they can sell, and if people start asking for organic products, gluten-free products, lower-sodium products, etc., the stores will stock them. In the nutrition arena, your power as a consumer far outweighs your power as a voter because it’s much easier to make a company change than it is to make the government change.
The government can help fight the obesity epidemic. Local communities can provide incentives to retailers to move into “food deserts,” like DC’s Ward 8. Schools can bring back home economics and serve healthier options in their cafeterias. WIC benefits and food stamps should come with mandatory nutrition and cooking classes. And USDA Extension Service should be better funded so that they can do more outreach and education.
Government can educate, identify weaknesses and incentivize to provide access, but we can’t force people to eat better and we can’t mandate more hours in the day. Our power ends when you choose, because nothing we do can override your personal responsibility. And when you choose to buy a product or order off a menu, you are in control of what you are eating, not the government.