Abundance Doesn’t Mean Health
• by Mark Bittman
• Jan. 21, 2014
• 3 min read
The relatively new notion that around a third or more of the world’s population is badly (“mal”) nourished conflates hunger and diet-spawned illnesses like diabetes, both of which are preventable.
Both result from a lack of access to quality food, which in turn can result from a lack of money. No one with money starves, and the obesity-diabetes epidemic afflicts predominantly people on the low end of the income scale. With money comes good food, food that creates health and not “illth,” to use John Ruskin’s word. With a lack of money comes either not enough food or so-called empty calories, calories that put on pounds but do not nourish.
This is made very clear in Oxfam’s “Good Enough to Eat” index, a snapshot of the state of eating in 125 countries released last week. The index attempts to determine the best and worst countries in which to eat, by measuring levels of undernourishment and underweight in children; asking “do people have enough to eat?”; measuring costs of food versus other goods and services, to see whether food is affordable; looking at the diversity of people’s diets and the availability of safe water; and monitoring diabetes and obesity levels to learn whether the diets are healthy.
The results for the United States make a fine case for American exceptionalism, though not in the way chauvinists will find pleasing.
We rank first in food affordability; food is cheap compared with other things we buy, and prices are relatively stable. We also rank highly (4th) in food “quality,” which is measured by (potential) diversity of diet, though access to good water is shockingly low (tied for 41st, about a third of the way down the list).
Then the hammer falls: When it comes to healthy eating as measured by diabetes and obesity rates, we’re 120th: sixth from the bottom, better off only than Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Fiji and our unlucky neighbor Mexico. (Canada fares a little better; it’s 18th worst.) We’re also in a tie (with Belarus and other powerhouses) for 35th in “enough to eat.” Really.
In fact, it’s hard to imagine having a food supply as abundant as ours and doing a worse job with it. There are reasons for this:
• Much of what’s grown with the potential to become “food” is actually turned into (as Michael Pollan dubbed them) edible foodlike substances — in short, junk food — that produces the opposite of health. (About this there can barely be an argument any longer.) Some of what we grow is also turned into fuel for automobiles, doing no one but corn farmers any good. And much of it is fed to animals, in itself not a terrible thing, although the way we do it is damaging on many fronts.
• While we generally manage to keep the neediest quarter of our population from actually starving, we do not reach everyone who could use help; for example, only half of those Californians eligible for food stamps (officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) actually get them, according to Roots of Change, a California nonprofit that focuses on food. And, of course, food stamps can be and often are used to buy junk, a pattern that causes as many problems as it alleviates.
• The budget for food education in the United States pales compared with the marketing budget for junk food, and much of that education is either unconvincing or ignored in the face of the barrage of “fun to eat” ads for the food that is worst for us. (These three charts, gathered in one place by Tom Philpott, pretty much tell the story.) There is, as I’ve complained before, no concerted effort to teach people how to cook, which cannot happen without simultaneously teaching people how to shop for real food.
There are also issues of economic justice and education, and all their complications, which is why talking about food and eating inevitably leads to talking about the structure of society.
Part of the problem lies in oversight. Although we have a first lady who cares about these issues (and presumably has the support of the president), we do not have 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. The Department of Agriculture partly fills that role, but it also has a clear conflict of interest, since its primary goal is to support what has become a system of industrial agriculture that cares more about production and marketing supports than about what happens to soil, water and air, or the health of consumers who buy its products. (One need look only at budgets to determine what any individual or agency cares about most.)
In the long run, what’s needed is not a Farm Bill — that tangled mess that’s been stalled in Congress since its expiration in 2012 — but a national food and health policy, one that sets goals first for healthful eating and only then determines how best to produce the food that will allow us to meet those goals. It doesn’t make sense to tell people to eat vegetables and then produce junk; that leads only to bad health in the face of evident abundance. What’s so great about that?
Abundance Doesn’t Mean Health