On Tuesday Michelle Obama addressed an enthusiastic audience about health concerns facing Hispanic families in the U.S. The First Lady spoke eloquently about the importance of healthy choices in fighting debilitating lifestyle diseases, now distressingly prevalent even among our children — especially among Hispanic (and other minority) children. But framing childhood obesity as a choice-driven issue sells parents and kids way short, especially within economically marginalized communities. If we fail to address the underlying problems, we can’t begin to hope for actual progress.
Michelle Is Right — These Things Deserve Attention
This year’s National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Annual Conference featured Michelle Obama as keynote speaker — and don’t get me wrong, she dished up some important ideas when she spoke to an audience of about 1,800 Latino civil rights advocates and activists last Tuesday.
As reported by Huffington Post,
“Forty percent of Hispanic children are overweight and 50 percent are on track to develop diabetes,” the first lady said. “While food might be love, the truth is we are loving ourselves and our kids to death. We need to step up, we need to start questioning the behaviors and beliefs that are making our kids sick.”
Hispanic obesity rates are higher than rates for non-Hispanics. In 2010, Hispanics in the U.S. were 1.2 times as likely to be obese than non-Hispanic whites, according to the Office of Minority Health.
So yes: THAT IS A PROBLEM!
She goes on to say,
We don’t have to completely deprive ourselves to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Instead, it’s about striving for balance and moderation, doing our best to eat right and stay active in between the special occasions. And it’s about empowering families with the information and resources they need to make healthy choices for their kids.
It’s also problematic that so many Hispanic (and other minority) kids live in areas too dangerous for safe outside play, which Ms. Obama rightfully calls out as a health risk for lifestyle disease among children.
Nothing under discussion here is solvable by only changing ‘behaviors and beliefs!’
I know that speeches by presidential spouses aren’t exactly policy-making events. While understandable from a political perspective, the glaring omissions in Ms. Obama’s speech are frustratingly commonplace in discussions of food and health.
So if Michelle won’t say it, I will: we have some systemic problems afflicting our food system that penalize poor people — especially poor people of color, and especially those families’ children — with lifestyle disease. This is an optional problem that we could change, if we ever found the political will to do so.
We subsidize crap food, based on the overproduction of corn, so that a bag of Cheetos or a half-gallon-cup of soda or the junk from the dollar-menu at fast food deathtraps costs less than produce. We subsidize the meat and dairy industries, and staff our ‘regulatory agencies’ with their members, to ensure that all possible costs are externalized to society and their death-hastening cancer-driving disease-making cruelty by-products remain ‘cheap.’ Then we let those same corporate entities set standards for low-income school lunch programs, which — surprise! — tend to be chock-full of disease-causing meat, dairy, and processed foods.
We tolerate food deserts in poor areas where retailers can’t sufficiently pad shareholder pockets, leaving no option but processed-food convenience-store shopping.
We embrace immigration laws that allow corporations like Tyson and Smithfield to pay workers third-world wages, leaving workers (i.e. poor parents) no choice but to accept near-slavelike (or in some cases actually-slavelike) conditions. We accept an education system that disproportionately fails minority students, ensuring maximal difficulty escaping poverty as young people of color enter the work force.
When corporations are allowed to pay a minimum wage far below a livable wage, parents working two or three jobs just to keep everyone fed and clothed won’t have time to cook dinner from real fresh ingredients (even hypothetically assuming for the moment that we subsidized broccoli, like we now subsidize high fructose corn syrup for processed foods, so that they might be able to afford such ingredients in the first place).
All of those factors contribute to higher rates of lifestyle disease among poor families and their children. All are absolutely subject to change, but not at a family level.
Whatever behaviors you encourage in your children, and whatever beliefs you embrace regarding food habits and health, it matters not one little tiny bit if there’s no way you can afford enough calories to feed everyone in your family real actual food. Our food system, in its current form, ensures that poor children will definitely be at higher risk for diet-driven diseases — no matter what their parents ‘choose’ to buy: we’ve made sure all the choices within range for poor people include only unhealthy food.
If and when we choose, as a society, to subsidize sustainable urban farming instead of industrial meat and dairy products and corn overproduction for processed food; and to decriminalize undocumented workers so they can access fair-wage work; and to institute a livable minimum wage so that poor families can buy adequate amounts of nutritious food, without having to choose between doing so and living indoors; and to approach gun regulation with an eye towards decreasing violence in poor communities (rather than optimizing profits for the gun-industry-slash-NRA at the expense of everyone downstream) so that poor kids can safely play outside; when we’ve made the systemic changes that make choice possible, then we can realistically hope to help parents ‘choose’ to enable their kids to live a healthier lifestyle.
Until then ‘moderation’ about ‘treats’ will never bring about meaningful change, on the issue of avoidably devastating the health of the most vulnerable members of our society. It’s a systemic problem, and it needs a systemic cure.
In Short: We Need an Overhaul, Not a Tune-Up!
For actual progress, we need to address the actual problems. Yes: as Ms. Obama said, ‘We need to admit that what we’re doing simply isn’t working anymore.’ But here’s the catch: we need to admit that reality at a policy level, not just as moms and dads and aunts and uncles.
There’s a food system infrastructure in place that puts poor and minority children at higher risk for avoidable disease. We set that system up; we could (and should) choose to take it down, and set up something better! Without revamping the system that only puts unhealthy food within reach of poor parents — who are disproportionately represented by minority families, which also needs to be addressed! — poor and minority families will continue to suffer higher rates of avoidable disease.
In a country as wealthy as the U.S. that’s an embarrassing and inexcusable reality, but not one subject to parental choice.
I’m always glad to hear advocacy for healthy food habits. But when it comes to diet, disease, poverty, and violence, simply pitching ‘healthy choices’ to parents — while ignoring the broken system that fuels the fire of childhood obesity — just won’t cut the mustard!
Image credit: Creative Commons photo by epSos.de