This NYT article is great on so many levels: pointing out an obvious reason why 1 in 3 Americans are obese and 2 in 3 Americans overweight; highlighting the basic tension / interplay of market capitalism and regulation; and doing it all with math!

Shockingly, Carson Chow, a mathematician, concludes that the rise in obesity in America over the last few decades can be attributed to… increased supply of food.  The mantra certainly holds true in my house:  if you grow it, I will eat it (though I like to think, in moderation).

And if you grow it cheaply, and on a mass scale, economics dictate that I will pay a lower price for it and be able to consume more of it in relative terms.  It’s a common refrain from visitors to Melbourne:  “food is SO expensive here.”  But it’s only because food is so cheap in the U.S., in fact, perhaps TOO cheap.

Sadly, I suspect another key part of the equation missed by Chow is a cultural one — Americans have proved in the last 50 years to be a culture of convenience consumers.  Which unfortunately means that, so long as supply is high, there will be demand. And so long as quick and cheap alternatives are available to maximize not only food consumption but minimize lost opportunity costs for other consumer activities, Americans will seize them.

It makes me nostalgic for a time when my dad would cook 7-days’ worth of meals in advance on the weekend, to freeze until each meal’s day came, so we could enjoy home cooked dinners quickly (and I suspect cheaply) when he got home from a long day at work. (And trust me, we probably BOTH thought we’d never be nostalgic for such things…)  What’s the incentive now, when a parent can just pick up a box-o-food in the same amount of time and at the same cost?

It’s a well-timed article for me, as I’ve been pondering a lot recently about the role of government in a capitalist society and whether there is any hope for effective national legislation in an increasingly gridlocked political system.  I’ve also been cooking, and therefore eating, ALOT (as you can tell from recent posts) with some downtime at work and an increasingly chilly winter descending on Melbourne that sends me straight to the oven for warmth.  (Plus, I havent shared a “random musings” post in a while…)

So what should be the political response to Chow’s mathematical answer?  It seems politically untenable and perhaps callous to suggest as a response that we should (1) remove farm subsidies (i.e., put the squeeze on struggling American farmers in the heartland of U.S.A) or (2) herald an age where food is more expensive, and therefore more financially burdensome to struggling families.  An obesity rate of 1 in 3 people suggests that Americans aren’t just “breaking even” on food, they are gluttonously profiting.  But political rhetoric is hardly that discerning.

Perhaps in the current political climate, cultural change is the best we can hope for… I’ll start one home at a time; my own.  After all, if a corporate lawyer can manage to avoid fast food and cook for her family most nights, I promise, you can too!

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