I told you food deserts was bullshit. But that didn’t stop the feds and states from spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to force poor people to eat better.
As Ta-Nehisi said, junk food is one of the few vices the poor can afford without wrecking their lives. And the working poor — those trying to drag themselves up against the raging torrent of liberal policies keeping them poor — fast food is sometimes all they have time for. The idea of getting poor people to go down to grocery store and buy lots of organic kale was always an arrogant classist idea; rich busybodies talking down to working folk. But don’t expect their utter failure to deter them.
Whenever the governments give you money, it comes with government control. To wit:
FROM urban ghettos to declining inner-ring suburbs to destitute rural areas, Americans with little money live in “food deserts” where it is hard to find fresh fruits and vegetables
Stop right there. We’re one sentence in and we’ve already got a problem. Food deserts are a myth. They’ve long been known to be a myth. The writers try to revive this myth with two bizarre measures. One is the number of grocery stores per zip code, which basically means nothing. The population per zip code varies wildly in the United States. My zip code has 40,000 people in it. My uncle’s, living a major city, has 9000. The population of New York City’s zip codes vary by tens of thousands, which is to say nothing of how business zoning varies. This smells like a metric picked for the conclusion. You can contrast it against the study in the link above, which actually looked at 8000 poor children to see how many grocery stores they had in their neighborhoods.
The second number is the amount of shelf space devoted to junk food vs. fresh food. But junk food has more shelf space because 1) they’re including convenience stores, which are supposed to be for a quick grab of something, not grocery shopping; 2) junk food keeps in a way that fresh food doesn’t; and 3) there are four million varieties of soda and chips; most stores carry maybe one or two brands of apples. Moreover, location is important: fresh food shelf space tends to be the first thing you encounter in a store.
Justified by these distortions, they then go on to argue that the food stamp program should be used as a cudgel to force poor people to eat good food:
Food stamps can’t be used to buy cigarettes or alcohol — why not simply add junk food to that ban? In 2011, the Agriculture Department turned down a proposal to restrict the use of food stamps in New York City to buy sugary drinks. Officials said the proposal was too complicated for retailers. But in the background was fierce resistance to the proposal from the beverage industry and its friends in the grocery industry.
The department should give financial incentives to food stamp users to buy healthy food, and should also reconsider its hesitation about restricting the use of food stamps to buy junk food.
They also recommend coercing the stores:
To participate in SNAP, stores must meet certain federal standards. Under the current standards, a store can qualify by stocking a small number of offerings of bread, canned vegetables, meat, milk and cheese, even if they are hidden away in a dusty corner.
The Agriculture Department should simply require that stores that accept food stamps use more of their shelf space — say, a minimum of 20 feet — for healthy foods. And it should set a limit on the use of shelf space for displaying junk food, perhaps with a simple rule of no more space for junk than for fruits and vegetables. This plan would put nutritious food within sight and reach.
They point to some studies that claim this would increase consumption of health foods. Given the junk stats they use on food deserts and their failure to link the aforementioned studies, I will assume that they have misinterpreted these studies. I also say that because the one study they do link to, they misquote. They claim that people consumed more healthy food after WIC implemented a similar requirement for participation. But that study only looks at store inventory, not consumption. It comes to the unsurprising conclusion that when you force stores to stock more healthy food, they stock more healthy food. If you are a behaviorist Nanny Stater who thinks people are empty vessels whose dining habits are controlled by the amount of shelf space devoted to fresh food, the difference between those concept might evade you.
Keep in mind also: there’s a history here. LA tried to ban new fast food stores from low income areas. Obesity actually increased after this. So people in poor areas were denied jobs working in fast food joints to no discernible benefit. Now these clowns want to hit convenience stores and bodegas — often stores run by working poor and operating on the margin — to stock food that no one is going to eat.
And we wonder why poverty remains entrenched.
I always keep in mind what Ta-Nehisi Coates had to say about this (the Atlantic is timing out on me; I’ll update with a link when I can find it). If you’re poor and especially if you are working poor, junk food is one of the few vices you can afford. It’s one of the few that won’t wreck your life in the process (at least not right away). For a couple of well-off liberals to swan in and try to take that away with an ill-advised and ill-informed effort at “public health” is … well … you know the Left talks about privilege? That’s what this is.
And it’s a picnic compared to what’s coming when our government will be giving you “free” healthcare.
One of the fantasies being pushed around in progressive circles is the idea of “national food policy”. I’ve been mulling this article for a few months and have finally decided on a response. Here is their case:
The food system and the diet it’s created have caused incalculable damage to the health of our people and our land, water and air. If a foreign power were to do such harm, we’d regard it as a threat to national security, if not an act of war, and the government would formulate a comprehensive plan and marshal resources to combat it. (The administration even named an Ebola czar to respond to a disease that threatens few Americans.) So when hundreds of thousands of annual deaths are preventable — as the deaths from the chronic diseases linked to the modern American way of eating surely are — preventing those needless deaths is a national priority.
The national food policy could be developed and implemented by a new White House council, which would coordinate among, say, the Department of Health and Human Services and the USDA to align agricultural policies with public health objectives, and the EPA and the USDA to make sure food production doesn’t undermine environmental goals. A national food policy would lay the foundation for a food system in which healthful choices are accessible to all and in which it becomes possible to nourish ourselves without exploiting other people or nature
They then go on to list a smorgasbord of Nanny State desires: restrictions on advertising, farm policies guided by environmental concerns (because starvation is a good cure for obesity), a “fair wage” for people in the food industry (because food made at minimum wage makes you fatter), humane animal treatment, sequestering farmland for global warming purposes and making sure “all Americans have access to health food”. The last one is particularly odd because all Americans do have access to healthy food. The so-called “food deserts” are a myth. The problem is that too many people choose to eat junk.
Reading it again, I’m struck by the ignorance and panic-mongering. To give one example: farming has become much more environmentally friendly over the last couple of decades thanks to improved methods, technological advances and genetic engineering. We are feeding more people on less land than we used to.
As a practical matter, this plan is utter nonsense and transparently authoritarian. In the past I have used the term “food system” as shorthand for the industrial paradigm of food production, but for Bittman et al. to talk about the “food system” in such a way exposes it for the ridiculous concept it really is. There is no “food system,” not in the sense of a truly unified body of fully interdependent constituent parts: the “food system” is actually composed of millions of individuals acting privately and voluntarily, in different cities, counties, and states, as part of different companies and corporations and individual businesses, in elective concert with each other and with the rest of the world. To speak if it as a single “system” is deeply misguided, at least insofar as it is not a single entity but an endlessly complex patchwork of fully autonomous beings.
Here’s the thing. We don’t have to speculate whether government food policy would be a good thing or a bad thing. We know. We already have a raft of government food policies and they have been a disaster. Our government has spent decades pushing food policies that helped create the very problems these authors lament. And it was based on special interests, nannyism and junk science.
Our government spent years telling us how bad salt was for us. The health nuts wanted dietary salt restricted by law. They have now been forced to admit that the salt guideline they pushed on us for decades was unhealthily low and that salt intake is only important to high-risk individuals.
After years of telling us that cholesterol was evil, they’ve had to admit it’s not that harmful. After years of pushing us away from animal fats toward trans fats, they had to reverse course when it turned out trans fats were worse than animal fats. Ron Bailey today summed up just how wrong the nannies were.
Most of the government’s recommendations were derived from “consensus statements” based largely on the results of observational epidemiological studies. The new revisions tend to be based on prospective epidemiological studies and random controlled trials. Observational studies may be good at developing hypotheses, but they are mostly not a good basis for making behavioral recommendations and imposing regulations.
(I would add that the low-fat fad had its origin in the seriously flawed and possibly fraudulent Seven Countries study.)
The thing is that all these supposed menaces were presented with absolute certainty. Salt was evil. Animal fats were killing us. Cholesterol was destroying America. Organizations like the Center for Pseudoscience in the Private Interest would label foods as lethal and scream for restrictions and bans. People who dared to question them were branded as tools of “industry”.
We’re still not done. Our government spends billions of dollars subsidizing food production and targets subsidies toward the foods that are the least healthy. It is spending enormous amount of money and destroying our freedom to get us to burn ethanol. That is, it wants us to burn food in an engine-destroying, atmosphere-polluting, greenhouse-gas belching special interest orgy.
Under Obama, school lunches have been made almost inedible and high schoolers are going hungry. Day care centers will soon be forced to limit juice and ban fried foods. The condescending privilege is so thick you can taste it. The Obama people think every school and daycare in the country can run down to Whole Foods and pick up some low-fat, low-sugar organic produce that never casts a shadow. And then they wonder why daycare is so expensive.
Yet somehow, these decades of failure, decades of misguided policy, decades of junk science, decades of lunacy are seen not as a reason to hesitate but as justification to exert more control over America’s diet. Because with the progressives it never really is about facts; it’s about control.
The latest demon du jour is sugar. Progressives are calling for restrictions on sugar based on the rantings of crackpots like Robert Lustig, who claims sugar is a “dangerous drug” and “poison”. With more junk science in tow and such insane abuse of the English language, the nannies are now advocating for a sugar tax, specifically on the most vile of concoctions — sugary drinks — to … well, it’s not clear what.
The stupidity of that is simply mind-boggling because our government already spends billions of dollars driving down the cost of sugary drinks through farm subsidies. So they want to tax us once to make sure we have enough high fructose corn syrup to keep us fat and happy. And then they want to tax us again to keep us from drinking our subsidized drinks.
(Lustig, in a moment of sanity, at least acknowledges that we eat lots of sugary stuff because the government subsidizes it and advocates for eliminating those subsidies.)
That’s to say nothing of progressive opposition to genetic engineering, free trade and other innovations that have made our food safer, healthier, cheaper, more plentiful and more environmentally friendly than ever before.
I’m with Penn. Fuck these busybodies. Let’s put aside the arguments about freedom and personal responsibility — even though those are the most important ones. Let’s concentrate on this: they have been wrong, over and over again. If the had the power twenty years ago that they want now we’d have less food, less money, more obesity, worse health and a dirtier environment.