cut on the bias

keeping an eye on the spins and weirdness of media, crime and everyday life

Sunday, June 09, 2002

I'LL HAVE THOSE POTATOES FRIED, PLEASE: Jacob Sullum at Reason Online comments with appropriate disgust and amazement on the current efforts to chase after obesity in this country with the same lawyers who went after Big Tobacco. Summarizing his amused horror will not do the piece justice, so I won't. I do want to comment on this:

The Independent added that many Americans can't get healthy food even if they want it. "Once you head inland from the coasts, away from the big population centers and college towns," it reported, "the very notion of unprocessed fresh food" vanishes. "It's a straightforward question of availability, giving the lie to food industry claims that consumers can exercise free choice in deciding what to put in their mouths."

Sullum responds to this well, but didn't make the point that immediately came to my mind, as someone who grew up about as far as you can get from the "big population centers" and still have an average of one person per square mile or more. You see, the further you get away from those "big populations centers", the more likely you are to be close to another American phenomenon - "farmers". "Farmers" are people who produce the "unprocessed fresh food" that the Independent apparently thinks magically regenerates in those big city supermarkets, kind of like a Lil Abner Dogpatch ham (no matter how much you use, there's always more left). "Farmers" even make "unprocessed fresh food" available more cheaply than supermarkets, at roadside stands and farmers' markets.

It's true that when I was growing up far from any coast in that vast wasteland void of big population centers, we rarely bought vegetables at the supermarket, especially in the summer. What we did do was go to the garden, liberate whatever looked good, and eat it the same day for dinner. It was routine for my dad to put a pot of water on the stove, then go to the garden for corn; by the time he was done shucking it, the water was boiling and ready to receive it. Many times dinner was sans meat - we'd have corn, broccoli, cole slaw, new potatoes, sliced tomatoes and onions, all from our garden, and cornbread made from cornmeal ground from our corn. And - this will really horrify those who think food spontaneously appears, packaged and pasteurized - we also occasionally killed and dressed chickens for dinner that same day .

The problem wasn't the availability of fresh, unprocessed food. When there was a problem, it was how it was fixed - fried. Fried chicken, fried potatoes, fried corn (you haven't lived 'til you've had it), and - in some families, not mine - fried tomatoes. All served with cornbread and butter. This was relatively okay fare for a hardworking farmer going dawn to dusk, but when the work style changed the eating style didn't, so you had a disconnect between calories eaten and expended. It wasn't - and isn't - availability at issue. It's choice of food, choice of preparation style, choice of time spent preparing, choice of quantity and choice of calories expended (i.e. exercise). Suddenly, it begins to look like choice, doesn't it?

I don't deny that sometimes obesity is involuntary, but that's usually a medical condition, not a corporate plot. And there are legitimate emotional issues and physical addictions (for want of a better word) associated with food that can make it difficult to control weight, as well as cultural habits of eating and the tendency to make celebrations and social occasions food-centric. Also, limiting a behavior is always more difficult than just giving it up entirely - the "can't eat just one" syndrome. Nonetheless, it is insanity, this whole chasing-after-obesity movement with lawsuits and pious pronouncements about protecting people from evil corporations leading them insensate to the trough. It is an invasion of privacy and a further undermining of the concept of personal responsibility. And just, well, stupid.

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