Recently, on one of my favorite podcasts, a documentary was reviewed titled Finding North. The point of this particular documentary was to highlight the rather massive (pun intended) issue of childhood obesity in America. In the end, the documentary was reviewed poorly because it left the viewer with the impression that what they saw was a bunch of fat, American kids complaining that they were hungry. When I heard that my mind immediately cut to the scene where Eric Cartman explains to Starvin’ Marvin about appetizers. The comparison disturbed me on a couple of levels: For starters, it bothers me that the film’s producers took such a vital and pressing issue of American Society and made it sound like the mewling of a fat, spoiled rotten cat. Second, why is my mind so easily able to remember an episode of a cartoon with vivid detail after nearly 15 years of seeing it (once), yet can’t remember to take the trash to the curb on Monday mornings? Anyhow, I asked Charlie if she’d mind if I responded to her review (not to rebut, I haven’t actually seen the film, but simply to give my take on the cause of this issue).
The biggest problem, of course, is that the issue of childhood obesity in America is probably the largest problem impacting this country and it certainly doesn’t help us when a group of well intentioned people lose the thread of their point and make us look like fat idiots to the whole planet (and if you’ve paid attention at all to our political climate recently, you’ll know that we don’t need any help with that).
So. How can the point be illustrated without sounding pandering or pedantic? I have no idea, because I’m rather dim. BUT! The best part of being dim is not knowing when to shut up!
To my mind, there are two things that have lead to the over-industrialization of farming and agriculture in this country. Both were disastrously short-sighted. The first thing happened as a result of some of FDR’s New Deal initiatives. In order to mitigate a large over-abundance of corn in America, and to keep the corn prices moderately high (which would keep farmers from losing their houses and livelihoods but also kept food prices slightly higher) the FDR administration began a program that paid farmers not to farm. This is key; they didn’t pay them to not farm corn, which would have increased bio-diversity and lowered the cost of many other (at the time) staple foods, they simply paid them to not farm. This meant there were tens of thousands of acres of viable crop land just sitting there, turning into hay fields or new growth forest. Corn prices remained stable though, and it was considered a good idea at the time. After a few decades went by, someone came along and said, “This is stupid! Why would we pay someone to not do something?!” This is actually a very viable question, and a point I agree with quite a bit. BUT! The same short sightedness that lead to wasted crop land soon produced a new idea: Big. Fucking. Farms.
Earl Butz (giggle) was the Secretary of Agriculture for Richard Nixon as well as Gerald Ford (and, apparently, a racist piece of shit). In the interest of full disclosure I should also tell you that he was born and raised in my beloved Indiana. For every Hoagy Carmichael, there’s an opposite player on the side of evil. *sigh* Butz decided to end the rather ridiculous Pay-You-To-Not-Do-Anything program set up years before and instead told farmers across the country to "get big or get out," and began encouraging farmers to focus primarily on commodity crops (mainly corn, soybeans, and tobacco, but some regional variation comes into play like apples in Washington State, potatoes in Idaho, or bananas and pineapple in Hawai’i). On the surface this doesn’t necessarily seem like a bad thing. After World War II there was an explosion in the US population as war time veterans returned home and got busy copulating like Viagra test bunnies. You’ve got to feed all of those people somehow, right? The problem is that most farmers took to corn because it was relatively easy to harvest (versus beans or potatoes), grows damn near anywhere in habitable North America, and was very space efficient. This lead to a huge excess of corn in the farming industry and, as such, companies started looking for more and more things they could do with all that extra grain. So we starting eating more of it. Then we started processing it and adding it as filler to more and more foods. In the 70s the Japanese developed a way to extract fructose from corn and they destroyed the wonderful flavor of pop forever. As that began to overtake society more and more farmers came into play. This lead to further granary abundance. So we increased the amount of corn we were feeding to pigs and cattle, neither of which was evolutionarily designed to subsist on corn alone & caused all kinds of animal health issues. Then chickens. Then farmed salmon. Then dog food. Today you’ll find corn or a derivative of it in nearly every single non-whole food product in an American grocery store. But still, there was an abundance of corn. So we started making plastics out of it. Then clothing. Then cat litter. This website offers up a great list of all the things corn is used for in non-food applications in America (and at least one example from the UK) today.
I've been rambling on and on about corn for a while now & you’re probably asking yourself, “What does that have to do with childhood and poverty related obesity?” Well I’ll tell ya. Corn is not the healthiest of grains. It lacks protein compared to soy or wheat, is relatively high in sugar, and offers little to no nutrient benefit. It’s a filler food, through and through. This ordinarily wouldn’t be so bad, and I’m not saying that corn is the reason we’re all fat (more on that in a second), but it does lead to a serious deficiency in nutritive substance if 75% of the things we eat are corn or corn derived. “But Mr. Attack Resistance” you say, “What about all the fresh fruits and vegetables you can buy at any grocery store in the country? Why don’t people just buy those?” Two reasons, and I’ll outline them below:
- I’m sad to report that not every grocery store in the country carries fresh, whole foods anymore. In the small Indiana town where I live there was a grocery store that wasn’t doing very well. The corporate executives, doing what they have to do, made the decision to switch the format of that store into more of a discount food model. They would primarily sell generic branded foods at low cost; mostly boxed, bagged, canned, or frozen stuff. No fresh fruits, vegetables, or deli meats. None. My town is uniquely structured in a two tier format so that it is prohibitively difficult to obtain something from the other section of town. This means that, poor and disadvantaged or disabled people would have no ready access on a regular basis to fresh fruits and vegetables. They are now forced to buy canned goods. Or bagged food-like substances made from or derivative of, you guessed it, corn. It literally took a protest from the citizens of the Downtown area to get the corporation to reverse course and commit to carrying fresh fruits and vegetables.
- Fresh, whole foods are expensive. It’s true! For fifteen dollars in this country I can feed a family of four, with a beverage, from a pizza joint or a fast food restaurant and probably could have food left over (depending on how much your large bundle of joy decides he or she wants to put down that evening). In fresh and whole foods, that same fifteen dollars will get each family member a very small salad with no dressing, a piece of fruit and maybe some bread. You’ll have to drink tap water, as well. Fun fact! For $30 a 23 year old male can survive for an entire year on almost nothing but Ramen noodles and multi-vitamins. Those were dark days for me, Dear Readers. Dark days indeed. Additionally, the Bush (W.) Administration did another short sighted deal that hurt food costs in this country. In an effort to lower the cost of gasoline (which skyrocketed in our war-heavy, post 9-11 world) they started offering heavier subsidies for corn if it was used to produce fuel grade ethanol. Now you’ve got farmers who might have been tempted to grow wheat, say, or broccoli that can no longer afford NOT to grow corn. All of a sudden more and more corn is being diverted from foodstuff (and feed for animal foodstuffs) and pointed towards ethanol production. The best part? It did next to nothing to lower fuel costs and farmers across the country began cutting down wooded areas to make room to grow more corn! This, of course, began driving up food costs of all kinds across the board.
Now, let’s say that you’re a poor, single parent working and living as best you can. You’re not going to have the time or the money to prepare a fresh meal every night of the week. You know what you probably will have the time and money for though? Taco Bell. Let’s say you’re a two parent household with a couple of kids (and a dog and white picket fence, quit bragging about your glorious life you pretentious twat!). You’re working longer hours at the office because the economy has made job security flimsy and competition for that promotion has gotten pretty fierce. Your husband or wife (or domestic partner, assuming you don’t live in North Carolina) is also working, because single family incomes are increasingly rare in today’s world. You’ve probably got a little bit of cash to spare for good food, but with a 60 hour work week and football practice and piano recitals, and community events, who has time to cook? McDonald’s does. Add to this an increasingly sedentary lifestyle (the downside to the computing age. Thanks a lot Charles Babbage!) and Americans are eating more calories with fewer nutrients while moving less. Heart disease, diabetes, kidney and liver function issues abound! Fast and processed foods are actually designed to be digested and passed through the body as quickly as possible, leaving you with a bunch of empty calories and a feeling of hunger. Thus, fat kids complaining about being hungry.
So this begs the question, “What can be done?” Well I’ll tell ya. In my small community there are a few things that are really gathering momentum as a way for average citizens to combat the food desert phenomenon:
- The first thing most residents can do is a back yard garden (for the benefit of my English readers [the country, not the language] I should note that garden, to us, is a specific area set aside for a certain function. Vegetables, or herbs, or flowers as examples. What you call a garden we call a yard or lawn). Currently my backyard garden has tomatoes, a variety of peppers, okra, oregano, basil, sage, mint, basil, stevia, rosemary, catnip, and some leafy greens for salads.
- Next up, the Community Garden. Followers of my Twitter Feed will be familiar with this location. For $100 dollars I get the use of a rather massive plot, free water, an electrified pest fence, and neighborly help, advice, and free plants (from people that have too much of one thing or another). The money helps pay the bills and also assists in paying for other garden projects, like a shed I helped build out of found wood and other materials (BTW, that’s still not fully assembled. WTF?). I currently have about 15 plants in there of varying veggie variety, as well as some okra seeds and a cayenne pepper plant given to me from a neighbor gardener (see above). There’s also a popcorn experiment. It’s super scientific. I bought a bag of popcorn and planted some of the kernels. My control group is the empty ground surrounding it.
- Finally, there’s the Farmer’s Market. Located in the heart of downtown, it’s a lot like Mos Eisley, without the wretched hive of scum and villainy (or blasters, unfortunately). Here you’ll find locally sourced whole foods at cheap prices and they've even begun to accept the food assistance program payment option!
So there you have it. The perspective of a Middle American guy on what is wrong, and a few simple changes we can make to improve nutritive value. For what it’s worth.
It should be noted that I am not a professional journalist, a farmer, or a nutritional scientist. I just read publicly available material and form my own opinions based on that information. In other words, this is much more of an op-ed piece than any kind of citable document (you may have noticed that when I called someone a twat and made a Star Wars reference).
Does that shed any light on the issue at all, Charlie? Or have I, as I suspect, muddied the waters with my incessant rambling?