The present-day United States is one of the first civilizations in history in which poor people are fat and rich people are lean and fit. There was a time within living memory when things were just the opposite. During and just prior to World War Two, the U.S. military was concerned that so many recruits from poor families were undernourished and stunted. Now their concern is just the opposite – too many recruits are overweight.
If you look at photos of poor people from the past – of Texas Hill Country pioneers, of immigrants disembarking at Ellis Island, of Dust Bowl farmers in the 1930s – they’re all lean and gaunt, with bodies more like the inmates of refugee camps than Americans of today. Not all the tycoons and millionaires of those times were fat – think of Henry Ford or John D. Rockefeller Sr. – but a large girth was the norm. If you look at the menus of the banquets of the upper crust, in the late 19th century you can see why.
Now our image of wealth and poverty are different. We think of rich people as men (usually men) who have time to work out in the gym, and poor people as overweight women (that’s the image) slumped in front of the TV set. Since we associate being overweight with gluttony and lack of character, this reinforces the popular meme that poor people are morally to blame for being poor.
Obesity is a serious health problem, putting even young children at risk for diabetes and heart disease. Much of the writing about the subject of obesity treats it as a matter of knowledge, influence and will, with maybe factoring in thoughts on Darwinian evolution and a predisposition to like sugar, salt and animal fat. The solution is a combination of knowledge and will power – understanding what a healthy diet and lifestyle involve, counteracting advertising the appeal of junk foods, resisting the desire for an unhealthy diet and life. I don’t deny the importance of these things. There is another factor, though, and that is affordability of fast food versus fresh fruit and vegetables.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that the poorest state, Mississippi, is the state with the highest rate of obesity, and that a century ago, the Deep South was the part of the country with the highest concentration of deficiency diseases such as ricketts and pellegra. In terms of nutritional calories, fresh fruit and vegetables are expensive, while so-called junk food is cheap. That’s partly because raising fruit and vegetables is more labor-intensive than raising grain and livestock. But it is also because grain – especially corn – is subsidized by the government, and that is also a subsidy for grain-fed beef and pork.
Michael Pollan, in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, described a molecular analysis of a McDonald’s restaurant meal, which revealed almost every item was partly a form of corn, including the corn-fed beef and chicken and the soft drinks and condiments with high-fructose corn syrup.
The corn content was follows: Soda (100 percent corn), milk shake (78 percent), salad dressing (65 percent), chicken nuggets (56 percent), cheeseburger (52 percent) and French fries (23 percent).
It is a great achievement, of course, that poor people no longer starve to death for lack of nutritional calories. A sack of flour, a sack of potatoes, a sack of bean or a sack of rice is affordable by almost any American. But our society is rich enough that we should aspire to more than minimal sustenance of life. We can aspire to a society in which health and well-being are available to all.
Click on Food Stamps for Good Food for an article in The Nation about how to make healthy food more affordable.
Click on Better Food in Philly for a New York Times article on the same subject.
Click on Farm Bill 2008: Who Benefits? for supporting data for the pyramid chart on the Physicians for Responsible Medicine’s web site. While there is no direct agricultural subsidy for meat and only a small subsidy for dairy products, Physicians for Responsible Medicine counts subsidized grain used as animal feed as part of the subsidy for meat and dairy.
Click on Fattest States 2010: CalorieLab’s Annual Obesity Map for the source and context of the United States of Obesity map.
Click on In 1991 The Fattest US States Were As Thin As the Leanist in 2009 for an article and comparative maps showing the increase in obesity over 18 years.
Click on Tomorrow’s GI Joe May Be Too Fat to Fight for another article and comparative maps on the increase in obesity.
Click on EWG Farm Subsidy Database for statistics on farm subsidies 1995-2009 from the Environmental Working Group.
Click on The fattest states in the USA 2010 for a good new infographic on the geography of obesity. [Added 5/2/11]
Also: My respects to Michelle Obama for her commitment to calling attention to this problem, knowing (as she must have) how it would make her the target of ignorant ridicule.