A fake solution to the obesity crisis

July 26, 2011

Trish Kahle looks at the social realities behind a controversial medical study.

EVER SINCE I first heard about the new recommendation by David Ludwig, an obesity doctor at Children's Hospital Boston, and lawyer Lindsey Murtagh, a researcher at Harvard's School of Public Health, in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) that "super obese" children should be removed from their families out of concern for their immediate health, the story has seemingly been everywhere.

While the mainstream sources raise the story as a "question" or "debate," there has been startlingly little challenging of the article's suggestion. Everyone seems unwilling to repudiate the notion which--as I'll discuss--is not only ridiculous, but also manages to target the poor for punishment, further protect and expand corporate interests, and weave racism into its ugly tapestry before the journal is even cool off the press.

Even Dr. Atronette Yancey, a professor in the Department of Health Services at the UCLA School of Public Health, noted that childhood obesity stems from several factors over which parents have little control, but her conclusion was not to say removing obese children from their homes would be a bad idea, but rather that it should be a "last resort."

Even small criticisms that have been made of the proposal argue that, while it might be undesirable to remove children from their families, it would be done in the "best interests" of the child.

This argument rather disturbingly--and almost verbatim--echoes arguments that were used across the world to "justify" removing children of color from their families, and even their home countries, and placing them in the "care" of white families, a practice that continues in some areas to this day.

The logic of the proposed removals is that allowing a child to become "super obese" (whatever that means--I haven't been able to find guidelines) constitutes neglect. If one was to carry that logic through to the rest of society, what would that mean? Are "super obese" adults legally incompetent because of their ability to attain or maintain a healthy weight? Does not providing "super obese" prisoners with proper "treatment" constitute torture? Would elderly or dependent people who are "super obese" be considered victims of neglect as well? That none of these questions are being raised belie the fact that this policy is not even at its root driven by a desire for good health.

That train of thought leads to another question: Why are the Republicans--who have been railing against every conceivable basic service as the downfall of America--not up in arms over this proposal? They, who are seemingly so concerned with the personal liberty of citizens, have left the crickets to chirp about this proposal. By now, one would surely expect to hear some crazed Tea Partier argue that this program would single-handedly kill every remaining American job, raise taxes, destroy Wall Street and pose an imminent threat to national security. But none of the usual right-wing hysteria associated with social health and welfare programs is forthcoming, and we should ask ourselves why.

Why? Because this program will not increase public health and will not threaten the corporations. In addition, it targets poor people and people of color. If you're a crazed right-winger, what's not to love?

TO BE clear, taking obese children away from their parents is nothing new. Long before it was put forward in JAMA, Alexander Draper, a Black South Carolina teen who weighed 555 pounds at the time, was taken away from his mother Jerri Gray. When Gray found out she was going to lose custody of her son and be charged with medical neglect, she fled with her son to Maryland, where she was arrested and her son taken into protective custody to receive treatment.

The sheriff claimed that help had been offered to the family previously, but had not been accepted. It should be clear, though, that this aid did not include access to healthy food. Gray explained that programs had been inaccessible or ineffective, and that she had sought help for her son and not received it.

She cited two major obstacles to providing her son with a healthy diet: low wages and long, odd hours. Gray didn't have the money to purchase healthier food options, and her work hours meant that she didn't have time to cook for her son. Her financial and employment situations dictated that most of his meals were high-calorie, high-fat fast food that had otherwise low nutritional content.

This was not "bad decision-making" on her part, though the media certainly portrayed it that way. Gray knew that fast food was not the healthiest option for her son. Instead, it was the inevitable outcome of a reality with restricted food choices--a reality the wealthy never have to face.

The story of Alexander Draper and Jerri Gray is typical. Every single case I was able to find of an obese child being removed from his/her family involved a Black family and usually a single mother who cited long hours and low wages as the chief obstacle to providing a healthy diet to her family.

Certainly, there are white and affluent children who are obese. Class is just one cause of obesity, but a very large one. Obesity in affluent children is more likely to stem from an eating disorder rather than inability to access healthy foods and exercise facilities.

Under capitalism, health is something we buy, not something to which we are entitled as a fundamental human right. This means that regardless of whether wealthy children are obese, they will not be targeted if this program is implemented based on the JAMA recommendations. Their families could afford expensive medical care that would preclude being taken into "protective custody."

No, it is the poor that will be the target of any policy instituted based on these recommendations. And despite the fact that parents have few, if any, healthy options available on a low-income budget, parents are the ones being blamed for "poor choices."

A BETTER focus would be the poor ethical choices of marketing and corporate agriculture. While these choices fit in marvelously with the morals of capitalism, they grate viciously against common human decency.

Essentially, corporate agriculture has manufactured chemicals out of food and non-food items that will sustain working-class life (in the most basic sense) with no concern for the long-term health effects--whether it be obesity or cancer. Then, the marketing industry has convinced us that this "stuff" is actually "food." Think "Soylent Green," only with less cannibalism.

And consider this: it is cheaper to buy soda, with high-fructose corn syrup as one of its main ingredients, than it is to buy bottled water (and the poorer you are, the less likely your tap water is safe to drink). In addition, since so many working-class people are overworked, overstressed and in a constant state of fatigue, many use the sodas with sugars and caffeine to help them "get through the day"--i.e., keep their jobs.

While the wealthy among us might be able to stroll through Trader Joe's, Whole Foods and Earthfare, and have their choice of good fruits and vegetables, and whole grain, pesticide-free foods, that's not an option available to most of us. After all, the $4 you might spend on a tomato in such a store will buy a week's worth of boxed macaroni and cheese or ramen noodles. The "choice" of what food to buy is about as meaningful as the right to quit your job if you don't like your boss. In other words, not a choice at all.

However, the rhetorical construction of this choice serves the ruling class extraordinarily well. It fits the ideological construction of working-class people as stupid and unfit to make important choices, a construction that is necessary to the maintenance of capitalism as a system. After all, they argue, if they can't even make healthy eating decisions, how can they possibly run society?

The construction of choice also helps maintain the illusion that the super-rich are somehow biologically superior to us. They maintain--whether explicitly or implicitly--that they are the Darwinian champions of society, neglecting of course their personal pools, tennis courts, trainers, and all-natural, organic stocked pantry. (Working-class people are far less likely to have a safe place to exercise, access to a pool, etc.) When necessary, the rich can afford medications and weight-loss surgery.

But even in the working class, all people aren't targeted equally. Black families seem to be the favored target for discrimination for many of the classic racist reasons. (Name one, they all fit.) Whether it's the "good-ol'-white-folks" trying to "help" Black families by breaking them up, or whether it's claiming that the (white) doctors "know better," this program will surely go down in the long history of racism in this country if it is implemented.

Every online news story discussing these proposed guidelines featured Black children in the photos, not too subtly suggesting that they would be the primary targets of such a program because their parents "don't care" and won't "pull their acts together" to save the children. I have not seen the issue of racism raised once by any commentator anywhere even though it is already embedded into this tactic of removal (not to mention the connection one might make to the way families were split up during slavery). Disgusting.

HEALTH--REAL health, not a definition of health narrowly based on body shape or size--is a huge issue in working-class communities, but parents are not the problem and removing kids from their families isn't the solution.

Ultimately, what's needed is a completely new society, organized around human need rather than profit: socialism. But as we continue to struggle for that new society, here are some steps along the way:

-- 1. Access to healthy food should be a human right. This is perhaps the most basic principle ignored by capitalism (and out of necessity). There is enough food to feed everyone in the world 2,800 calories a day--enough to make all of us obese. Yet tens of thousands die every day from starvation. At the other end are those who are forced to eat food with high calorie content but low nutritional value.

Neither qualifies as having access to healthy food. Food is required to survive. Healthy food is required to live a meaningfully active life. It is a basic necessity of human kind. This makes it a fundamental right. Denying people good food based on their inability to pay is immoral (to put it nicely).

2. Access to preventative health care should be a human right. If it's good enough for the rich, it's good enough for the rest of us.

3. Blame corporations, not parents. Corporations manufacture "foods" like high-fructose corn syrup, jack up prices of food staples, control growing and enforce unsustainable practices (Monsanto and International Corn, I'm talking about you). These corporations are to blame for the food and nutrition crisis. If you want to get to the root of the problem, they're the ones to go after, since they control what is produced and how it is distributed.

We already have the resources to feed everyone, for everyone to live healthy productive lives. The work that remains is re-appropriating those resources and using them for human need, not profit. Standing against policies that would enforce the guidelines suggested in the JAMA is a step in the right direction. Demanding that researchers place the blame where it's due is another step in the right direction.

I call these "steps" because they will be achieved by movements, not politicians--who are in bed with companies like International Corn and Monsanto--or with associations like the American Medical Association.

We have to fight, and we should not allow one more child to be removed from their family. Instead, we must fight for healthy food for all, free health care for all, and a place to be able to exercise safely for all.

First published at I Can't Believe We Still Have to Protest This Shit.

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