Cheeseburgers & Corporate Ties: Food Insecurity & Obesity in America

In the U.S., we have a problem with food. 42.2 million people in the U.S. live in food insecure households. Yet, contrastingly 68.8% of U.S. adults are either overweight or obese. How does this work? Author Raj Patel explores this in his book Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World Food System.

Across the United States, and in many Westernized countries, the way we eat is chosen for us. Patel provides an example of apples — on the shelves today we see the same few types: Braeburn, Granny Smith, Fuji, Golden Delicious, etc. For many consumers, it is commonly held that these are simply the only types of apples which exist, something I myself thought before reading this book. However, there are many, many more kinds of apples unknown to us. So why do we primarily eat these 4 kinds? Because they are easiest for corporations. These apples look good, they transport well, adapt to waxing technologies used, and easily accept pesticides. We eat these apples because they are the easiest for corporations to mass produce. Our choices are, as Patel says, “crafted by the power of food corporations.” Of other options of food on the shelves, many are highly processed, with massive sugar and fat content.

Some may view this critique of the link between big corporations and food as something like a conspiracy theory, or part of some liberal agenda. But the way we eat has real consequences. Patel notes studies done in Mexico, which have shown that the closer Mexicans live to the U.S., their fat and sugar laden neighbors, the more overweight Mexican children are. America’s shitty eating habits are catching up to it as well. If our consumption patterns continue, Patel notes that, “U.S. children will live 5 fewer years because of diet-related diseases.” The way we eat is literally killing us.

However, the way we view individuals’ weight and appearance in this country reflects ideologies of the past. If people are going hungry, we argue that they are poor, and they are poor because they are lazy and don’t work. Or, if they are overweight or obese, we argue that they are rich and eating too well, or also too lazy to exercise or eat right. Patel argues that these ideologies reflect our own sense of moral condemnation, and notes that, “Moral condemnation only works if the condemned could have done things differently, if they had choices.” In the case of fat — those who have it, and those who do not, we apply this sense of moral condemnation. We condemn the obese, arguing that if they just ate better, they would be healthy. We chalk it up to lazyness — they are too lazy to exercise, they don’t have the will power to exercise. This works the same way with lack of fat — even when we see the poor and starving, many times there is a mindset that the individual has done something morally wrong to end up there — if they just worked harder, or had done something differently, they wouldn’t have put themselves in this position. Or we argue about the cheapness of food, asking ourselves how they could go hungry, when some fast food restaurants or products at grocery stores are less than a dollar. But Patel rejects this, “Yet the prevalence of hunger and obesity affect populations with far too much regularity, in too many different places, for it to be the result of some personal failing.” He agrees that this view has to do with mentally adhering to past ideologies, that the obese today are not overweight as reflection of their abundance of wealth, but rather, their lack of it.

The way the U.S. eats, in many places, is a reflection of its food deserts. Food deserts are not locations which are lacking in food, but ones which lack the right kind of food. They have, “little or no access to healthy food, including fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and diary products.” These places have direct ties to obesity in the U.S., and are the primary reason why minority groups like African-Americans and Hispanics have higher rates of food insecurity and obesity. Even in many places where individuals have access to healthier foods, they are simply too expensive to buy. For a parent feeding their children, they can provide less filling, more expensive healthy options, which leave them hungry and unsatisfied, or opt for cheaper, less healthy options which fill their bellies. Which would you choose?

This choice in food ultimately ties back to corporations. For example, why is a hamburger less expensive than an apple, or a salad? Consider all the things it takes to create a simple fast food burger — ground beef, cheese, bread/bun, sauces, maybe a tomato, or some lettuce. A cow must be raised, fed, go through slaughter for meat. Milk must be taken from cows, cultured, and turned into cheese to provide the slice of plasticy Kraft cheddar on American hamburgers. Grain must be harvested, bread baked and sliced to form our buns. How is this cheaper than simply picking a naturally growing food like lettuce or apples, and shipping it?

Some may argue that this is due to the growing season, that things like apples and lettuce are only grown during specific seasons, which leads to their increased price, as opposed to beef, which has a year-long season in the meat industry. While this is true, the more prevalent reason for this price differentiation is due to government subsidies. The government spends $38 billion each year to subsidize meat and dairy, and only 4% of that, $17 million, to subsidize fruits and vegetables, even though their federal regulations encourage us to eat more fruits, vegetables, and grain than meat.

Interesting. I personally would argue that this is due to corporate ties in our government, but hey, that’s just me. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯