4.24.2015

This is all Reagan's fault.
Food Issues Book Club - Weighing In, Chapter 8

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

Weighing In, Chapter 8: What's capitalism got to do with it?

Summary:

Economists have identified two contradictions of capitalism: first that it finds itself repeatedly in crises of overaccumulation, and second that when unfettered it causes environmental degradation.  Both of these contradictions come into play when we look at food as a capitalist enterprise and its contribution to increasing rates of obesity.  "[I]n the interest of economic growth, contemporary US capitalism has helped to create obesity as a material phenomenon and then made it a moral problem that must be resolved in a way that is equally kind to capitalism."

Neoliberalism specifically has created a vicious cycle: Lower wages have led to the need for two-income households.  Working more leads to having less time to procure and prepare food, thus creating a need for convenience foods.  Low wages also dictate that that convenience food must be cheap.  Consumption of this cheap food and the environmental ramifications of cheap production methods lead to obesity though a variety of obesogenic factors - not the least of which is the stress of working so much and earning so little that you can't feed yourself or your family properly.  Obesity causes further stress, and the cycle becomes self-perpetuating at the individual level.  When we recall that it is food companies themselves that have led the low wage charge, we come full circle.

In the end our bodies become a spatial fix: literally a place for the excess commodities and unregulated waste of the food industry to reside.  Not only are overproduction and toxic byproducts of fast and dirty production consumed but a new market arises in pathologizing our bodies' storage of and reaction to them.  "[B]odies as material entities are literally absorbing the conditions and externalities of production and consumption... The illnesses and conditions that arise, in their capacity as fixes for capitalism, suggest an internal limit to capitalism - in a way that seriously challenges the ideas that these illnesses are the result of personal lifestyle choices."

Discussion:

I'm just gonna come right out and say it: Ronald Reagan made us fat.  No, really.  His neoliberal policies, which led to so-called "trickle down" economics, turned this country into an obesogenic environment in a number of ways, including but certainly not limited to the following:
  • he cut food stamps and other social supports (read: more people with insufficient food turning to the cheapest possible options)
  • he cut funding for the EPA, USDA, and FDA because regulation was seen as unfriendly for business (read: businesses became free to feed us whatever they want and pollute with abandon - including with obesogenic substances)
  • he cut taxes for the rich (read: he eroded the tax base so that, among other effects, schools no longer had the tax revenue to feed students properly and began selling junk food on the side to make up the difference)
  • possibly most importantly, he created the illusion of the "welfare queen" and started a national mantra of "personal responsibility" that is still going strong (read: only YOU can be blamed for your problems, even when those problems are caused by factors that are completely out of your control and only government could change the situation, and furthermore if you take government assistance you are probably lowlife scum)
Granted, he didn't do these things singlehandedly.  And of course the ideals he instilled in his eight years in office would not have been so damaging if they'd not been supported by each president since.  Yes, even our precious Obama is keeping neoliberalism alive.  And yet, I don't think it's mere coincidence or correlation that obesity rates began to spike shortly after Reagan took office.

This is one of my more far-fetched theories, but honestly I think it has some merit.  Ronald Reagan... Ronald McDonald... Coincidence?  I THINK SO!

Tying all this back to New Orleans, Guthman notes that farm-to-school projects, which arose as an effort to combat the damage done to school lunch programs by Reagan's policies, most frequently benefit more privileged kids that had access to "good" food anyway.  The handful of public schools in New Orleans that have at-school gardening programs, work with the Sankofa HEAL project, or work with the learning garden at the ReFresh Project, are an exception; public school kids here tend to be among the least privileged in the country.

Final note: Reagan was an actor before he was a politician.  Enjoy!

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