Let them eat (organic) cake

August 31, 2009

Amy Muldoon takes on Whole Foods CEO John Mackey's "alternative" to health care reform--blame the victims for having unhealthy lifestyles.

FREE-MARKET ideologue and Whole Foods CEO John Mackey stirred a public outcry with his self-serving guest editorial in the Wall Street Journal on August 12. Bold even by the standards of a pro-corporate mouthpiece like the Journal, Mackey's arrogantly titled "The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare" argues against any social or governmental responsibility for not just health care, but food or shelter.

Mackey follows the tried-and-true attack line of conservatives that government-run programs--including the Medicare health care program for the elderly, according to Mackey--limit "personal choice." But he goes even further, targeting consumers for their poor lifestyle choices, which lead to bad health.

Mackey writes in the Wall Street Journal:

Rather than increase government spending and control, we need to address the root causes of poor health. This begins with the realization that every American adult is responsible for his or her own health.

Unfortunately, many of our health care problems are self-inflicted: two-thirds of Americans are now overweight and one-third are obese. Most of the diseases that kill us and account for about 70 percent of all health care spending--heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and obesity--are mostly preventable through proper diet, exercise, not smoking, minimal alcohol consumption and other healthy lifestyle choices.

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey addresses a press conference about healthy eating
Whole Foods CEO John Mackey addresses a press conference about healthy eating

Mackey makes his case not out of sympathy for the obese or those with diabetes, but out of contempt for those who he sees as a burden on taxpayers--because they are too stupid to eat better, stop smoking and reduce alcohol consumption.

In short, if more people shopped at Whole Foods, we wouldn't need a national health plan.

Fortunately, Mackey's diatribe provoked a response. Dozens of small actions have taken place in front of Whole Foods, and tens of thousands of shoppers are boycotting the store. The New York Times was forced to report on the growing wave of protests and a Facebook boycott group of almost 30,000.

BUT WHAT of Mackey's claim that "every American adult is responsible for his or her own health"?

As obesity has become more of an issue in American life and politics, a growing awareness of the connection between race, class and health has emerged. However, the prevailing perspective from the media, politicians and corporate boneheads like Mackey is that the poor simply lack the discipline to improve their lives.

Occasionally, the more liberal version emerges--that people lack the information to make better choices. But neither script accurately explains why obesity is so closely linked to class--and hunger--not just in the U.S., but around the world.

About one in five Americans currently qualify as obese; at the same time, 35.1 million people don't know where their next meal is coming from. The costs of treating obesity-related illnesses are up to almost $100 million a year, and Diabetes Type 2 (which used to be an adult onset condition) has doubled worldwide in 10 years.

Focusing on the individual responsibility obscures the enormous and almost inescapable forces that shape the food choices we face. As Raj Patel argues in Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle for the World's Food System:

Moral condemnation only works if the condemned could have done things differently, if they had choices. Yet the prevalence of hunger and obesity affects populations with far too much regularity, in too many different places, for it to be the result of some personal failing.

The accessibility of quality food is largely determined by class. Patel continues:

Across the range of neighborhoods in the U.S., the poor ones are not only likely to have four times fewer supermarkets than the rich ones, they are three times more likely to have places to consume alcohol...[F]ast food restaurants are concentrated in neighborhoods of poor people, and people of color.

But even in neighborhoods that have a Whole Foods, the illusion of choice still obscures a deeper truth: the crucial choices that affect the health and well-being of people are not made in the supermarket aisle or the drive-up window by consumers, but behind closed doors by a handful of mega-corporations that control world food production.

Food is not produced under capitalism to satisfy our needs, but to generate profits, regardless of its negative costs to consumers.

This functions in two ways. First, because competition has driven production up (through new technology, artificial fertilizers and overuse of land), there are 500 "excess" calories produced per person in the U.S. There's an overproduction of the big cash crops. In order to enable the market to absorb the excess, food producers put calories into items where they never existed before.

Overproduction drives down the price of raw food materials as crop yields increase. Michael Pollan writes in The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals:

Try as we might, each of us can eat only about 1,500 pounds of food a year. Unlike many other products--CDs, say, or shoes--there's a natural limit to how much food we can each consume without exploding. What this means for the food industry is its natural rate of growth is somewhere around 1 percent per year--1 percent being the annual growth rate of the American population. The problem is that Wall Street won't tolerate such an anemic rate of growth.

Profits would follow this decline in price, if foods simply appeared on the shelves as they appear in the field. The key way to boost profits on food is processing.

This is the second function of the market that has degraded our food supply. For every dollar spent on whole unprocessed foods, like eggs, for example, 40 cents goes back back to the producer. But with corn sweeteners, only 4 cents out of every dollar goes back to the farmer who harvested the crop. The other 96 cents goes into the pocket of the processors, distributors and retailers, which are a narrow field of players.

Most food that we encounter is highly processed, and is dominated by three cash crops: corn, wheat and soy--all of which have their own lobbies, their own subsidies and their own sordid past in destroying traditional farming. A tiny cluster of corporations like Cargill (the world's largest privately held corporation), Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland control the production and distribution of the bulk of the raw materials that fill the supermarket shelves.

Supermarkets (including the holier-than-thou Whole Foods) only deal in national contracts with major suppliers; "name brand" producers, like Starbucks, Nestle and General Mills have absorbed smaller producers to become industry giants that control every stage of production from field to plate.

Between 15,000 and 20,000 new foods appear in the market every year--ironically, at the same time that the biodiversity of the food we eat has narrowed precipitously. The explanation that market "demand" for a new kind of "Lunchable" or novelty-shaped chicken nugget is what is driving this production is hard to believe.

Take cereal. A supermarket can carry between 30 and 50 kinds of cereal, which according to Pollan is "the prototypical processed food: take four cents' worth of commodity corn (or some other equally cheap grain) transformed into four dollars' worth of processed food...by taking several of the output streams issuing from a wet mill (corn meal, corn starch, corn sweetener, as well as a handful of tinier chemical fractions), and then assembling them in an attractively novel form."

Witness the explosion of--and now backlash against--high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Unheard of 30 years ago, it now appears in everything from yogurt to lunchmeat. Our consumption of sweeteners has launched upward since 1985 from 128 to 158 pounds per year.

The industrial food processors and retailers have successfully passed excess corn productions off to us and our waistlines--and our medical bills. Ironically, manufacturers who have used HFCS are switching to sugar as the "healthy" alternative, without reducing the sweetness, or calories, of their products.

Because the market is controlled by those who can compete on a national, or increasingly international, playing field, processed foods are now cheaper than whole foods. For shoppers trying to stretch their dollar, you simply get more food, and more calories, from processed food.

WHY DO these manipulations of our food supply take place? Are we just suckers with sweet tooths?

The food industry, like every other commodity producer under capitalism, preys on the insecurity and alienation of the consumer any way it can. Humans have a biologically shaped reaction to sugars and fats after tens of thousands of years of evolving in conditions of scarcity.

Sugars and fats are the densest sources of calories in nature, and historically, the scarcest. We have an inbuilt positive reaction to them--anything dense in either or both is more physiologically satisfying than other food sources. In nature, this is a logical response to scarcity. In capitalist over-abundance, it's a disaster. As Patel comments:

Choice is the word we're left with to describe our plucking one box rather than another off the shelves, and it's the word we're taught to use. If we're asked why we use the word "choice" to describe this, we might respond, "no one pointed a gun to our head, no one coerced us," as if this were the opposite of choice. But the opposite of choice isn't coercion. It's instinct. And our instincts have been so thoroughly captured by forces beyond our control that they are suspect to the core.

Competing for brand loyalty and market share, producers have crammed as much fat and sugar into their products as possible, creating irresistible mutations like McNuggets, which has a list of 38 ingredients (including a form of butane) and 55 percent of its calories from added fat. Food additives and intense processing fools our senses, which are meant to guide us instinctively toward survival. And it's no surprise that those who suffer the greatest insecurity--food insecurity, housing insecurity and job insecurity--consume foods that satiate the survival-driven urge for dense calories.

Not coincidently, the body's natural reaction to high levels of stress is to store calories, in the form of fat. This is another natural adaptation of our species, which is compounded by the lack of access to physical activity for the poor--from lack of equipment in under-funded schools, to lack of green spaces in urban neighborhoods.

It is the pace of life, its social and geographic spaces, and the availability of quality, affordable food that makes health such a challenge for working and poor people. The production of food as a commodity has cut its ties to its original function as the sustainer of life. The four biggest killers in the U.S. are all linked to our diets: heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer.

If someone should be held responsible for the poor food choices that are killing people, it's the executives who can afford to dine on grass-fed beef and locally grown produce. They are the ones who lack the "discipline" to put human health and well-being above profit, and they are to blame.

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