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Marcie Ferris Headshot

The Food Bail-Out

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Michelle Obama is leading the charge in the fight against childhood obesity in America, and heaven help her. While it appears to be the kind of uncontroversial, feel-good platform we expect of our First Ladies and First Moms, Mrs. Obama is actually wrestling with a national problem as catastrophic as the economic crisis and with players as cold-blooded as the folks who brought us the mortgage disaster.

In fact, the American food crisis is worse. Millions of school children, factory workers, university students, even some of the much-maligned Wall Street bankers, eat a daily American diet that is slowing killing them. The facts are irrefutable. Obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are ravaging America. The likelihood that today's children will contract these conditions and live shorter lives than their parents is mind-boggling. Don't speak to me about medical odds and probability. This is not normal, and if it is the "new normal," something is very, very wrong in our country.

As we blame Americans for over-spending, credit-addiction, and living beyond their means, the same blame game is taking place in the food crisis. In addition to their financial dysfunctional behavior, we blame Americans for the country's food problems. They eat and drink too much fat, sugar, and processed foods. They don't exercise.

To turn this around, a leading proposal is to remove sugary beverages and candy from schools, serve baked, instead of fried, chicken nuggets, and get children moving. Sounds like a plan, except for one problem---we may take the fox out of the henhouse, but he remains lord of the farm house. Agribusiness and industrial food producers fill store shelves and fast-food restaurants -- for America's working poor, the only affordable, available food options -- as well as school lunchrooms with substandard food that has as much nutrition as bundled subprime mortgages. When the bad bankers went bad, our government went after them, however belatedly. Not so with the food crisis. Corporate food executives who promise low-fat pizzas and juice drinks to replace fried foods and sweetened soda stand ready for photo-ops in the White House's organic garden. Their appearance is a sign of trust in good intentions. But corporate food America has also jumped on Palin's populist band wagon with commercials from Denny's to Dominoes that imply we can "stick it to the man" by eating as many free "grand slam breakfasts" and bargain pizzas as we can.

It's time to demand real food for our children, what food activist and author Michael Pollan defines as "food our great-grandmothers would recognize." And if it's not real -- like the inflated mortgage packages -- government should step in. The government struggled to protect our economic security in the fall of 2009 -- how can it not protect us from edible toxic assets now?

Instead of subsidizing agribusiness, why doesn't government subsidize interstate rest stops with "slow food" options instead of fast food junk, small neighborhood markets and farmer's markets in "urban food deserts" that feature local fruits, vegetables, baked goods, cheeses, and ethnic specialties? How about a food-related national volunteer youth corps? We're talking about re-regulating banks in ways that matter -- what about regulating agribusiness? If we feed our children unhealthy food, and in many cases, down right dangerous food from pre-school through university, what makes this any different from a slow and steady attack on their well-being and that of the entire nation?

Food manufacturers talk about making "customer-friendly" labels so we can more easily identify high-fructose corn syrup and other "family-unfriendly" ingredients when we shop. How is it possible that in this America we must be wary of cereal boxes and soda pop, and consume them at our own peril? There's more than enough fear in this country -- I'd like to see it removed from our grocery stores and lunchrooms.

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