Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Fatuous Thinking on Obesity

In today's NY Daily News, an East Harlem social worker named Diane Pagan critique's first lady Michelle Obama's campaign against obesity for one salient omission-cost: "Launching a worthy campaign last week to reduce childhood obesity, Michelle Obama identified many culprits, including aggressive marketing of fatty and sugary foods, a lack of physical activity and parental ignorance. What never crossed her lips: The pocketbook problem. The fact is, lots of low-income families simply don't have the money to buy better groceries - especially in this economy."

Which is, of course, one of the most prominent reasons why there are less supermarkets per square foot in East Harlem than there are, let say, on the Upper West Side-the lack of comparable disposable income, and the concomitant lack of money to purchase many of the higher margin grocery items that are, not only healthier to eat, but healthier to the store's bottom line as well.

Pagan sees the solution in greater government aid: "Yet Obama did not call for an increase in the per person food stamp allotment - which is the biggest and best tool the federal government has for encouraging healthy eating. The current amount breaks down to about $15 per day max for a family of three. Yes, school-age children in these families get free school lunches - but they still get too little in food stamps."

What Pagan doesn't realize is that the continual expansion of food stamps and other government programs increases the public debt, forces taxes even higher, and slows the ability of our economy to create more jobs-the real source of an enhanced ability to purchase healthier foods. But Pagan does make an important point.

To try to tackle the obesity problem without understanding its roots in poverty and diminished economic opportunity is to inevitable devise solutions that are at best non sequitors; but at worst, create more problems than they purport to solve. Limiting the number of fast food outlets can be seen as one example of this.

People eat fast food because it is cheap, yes, but also because of its comfort. Living in challenging economic circumstances, means being constantly anxious, and often depressed as well. The bottle of Pepsi, the Big Mac, or the Hostess Snowballs, are not only fairly cheap and readily available-they also allay some of the distress of the folks who are struggling in low income neighborhoods.

Which gets us to the so-called fat tax. Given the fact that sweet soda may be consumed, not only for pure enjoyment, but for psycho-social reasons, the tax idea becomes a further punishment for low income folks. On top of that, it attacks a viable food distribution network that employs many neighborhood residents; and by raising costs, decreases the viability of the network and the employment levels that go with it.

As so many studies have shown, higher income people tend to be thinner and healthier. By increasing tax mandates and piling on more regulations, the health fascists are to some extent killing the goose that is-or could be-laying the golden egg. And that goose is economic development that can lead to the jobs that will, in our view, be the real source of reducing the obesity problem that does plague us.

And Pagan nails the weaknesses of some of the educational efforts-weaknesses that led people like Mother Tom Frieden to cry out that education doesn't work: "Instead, the First Lady seems focused on "nutrition education" - based on the belief that we simply need to increase awareness, and that will magically change eating habits. Nutrition education has kept nonprofits flush and "health educators" employed, but it will only go so far as long as child poverty remains about 20%. Kids will still eat cheap junk because their parents have no money. In East Harlem, where I do social work, it is uncommon to see a child with a carton of real juice or a piece of fresh fruit in hand. Instead, kids eat from the dollar menu in the waiting room."

And she also questions supermarket initiatives that, well, put the store carts before the consumption horse: "Instead, we have a government that's committed to spending $400 million a year for a Healthy Food Financing Initiative to lure supermarkets to low-income neighborhoods. This gets the economics exactly backward. If you increased the purchasing power of low-income families by upping the food stamp allotment, families would naturally create a market demand for more grocery stores."

Pagan has a point-and we do believe that in the short run more food stamps can make a difference for many folks. But in the long run, we need to find better ways to grow neighborhood economies-and Frieden's understandable frustration with educational efforts doesn't mean that more regulations and higher taxes are a good solution to getting people to eat better.

But both Pagan and Frieden miss the larger economic and social issues that can only be addressed by a more vibrant economy and more jobs for the folks. When real unemployment is topping off at over 17%, we don't need more taxes that try to force consumers to be healthy. A robust and vibrant economy is the healthiest response to the obesity problem facing this country.