10/27/2011 11:43 am ET | Updated Dec 27, 2011

How to Reduce the National Debt by $30 Trillion

By John McKnight

Anthropologists remind us that the manifestations of a community's culture are its food, language, arts and faith. These are the ways that have interwoven through time so that a community knows how to survive in its place.

Because cultural ways are historic and vital, they are very hard to change. Consider how difficult it is to change the food that people eat. This is why the efforts to deal with obesity are so challenging.

A recent article in the New York Times points out the consequence of the way many people eat. The article says that a 20 percent increase in the price of sugary drinks nationally could result in about a 20 percent decrease in consumption. This decrease could prevent about 1.5 million Americans from becoming obese and forestall 400,000 cases of diabetes. This would save about $30 trillion -- much of which would have to be paid through some form of public insurance.

What are we to do about this $30 trillion dilemma?

So what are we, the public, to do about this $30 trillion dilemma? Obviously, this is a matter of public concern, and we hear many ideas about new laws to change what we eat. The New York Times article is headlined "Bad Food? Tax It..." An opinion piece in the Journal of the American Medical Association quotes Dr. David Ludwig of the Children's Hospital in Boston as saying that, "Putting children with severe obesity in foster care would act in the best interest of the child." He goes on to say, "In instances of severe childhood obesity, removal from the home may be justifiable from a legal standpoint because of imminent health risks and the parents' chronic failure to address medical problems."

Historic communities learned how to use the food they grew to nourish and sustain their lives without eating themselves to death. We know about the "Mediterranean Diet" -- a manifestation of a culture that allowed a people to survive. The Inuit people of the north had a culture that guided them to live and prosper on a diet largely comprised of fish and meat.

The "obesity problem" isn't really about overeating. It is about people who abandoned their historic culture and entered a culture of market-directed consumption. Their lives are surrounded with counterfeit nourishment. They have no cultural direction that tells them how to survive with the food that could grow all around them.

The "obesity problem" isn't really about overeating. Is it possible that we could turn away from market-driven consumption and turn toward our neighbors?

So what will happen with this $30 trillion food problem? Will we try to tax away the bad food, and remove obese children from bad parents because our community cultures are ineffective? Or, is it possible that we could turn away from the market and turn toward our neighbors? We could discover, together, how we can eat, cook and celebrate what we grow locally in this place where we live. Otherwise we will have an ever-growing demand for new laws to change behavior that is created by the counterfeit culture of marketers. It is quite predictable that this effort will fail. Conservatives will defend the market counterfeiters and the liberals will support laws that can neither change nor create a culture.

We are up against a wonderful truth: Communities are the source of life-supporting cultures. And, within communities are the abundant capacities of productive citizens to grow a new future. We can see it sprouting all around us in the local food and slow food movements. Eat local, eat what your neighbors grow, eat slowly, eat what your grandmother prepared and walk where you once drove.

If you want to be part of the growing new community food culture, here are some sites to get you started:

Local Food Online Resources Ways to Connect International to Local Level You'll not only have fun and be healthy, you'll greatly lower your taxes by not having to pay off a $30 trillion debt! It's win-win all the way.

John McKnight and Peter Block blog on family and neighborhood issues at their website John is emeritus professor of education and social policy and co-director of the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University. He is the co-author of Building Communities from the Inside Out and the author of The Careless Society. He has been a community organizer and serves on the boards of several national organizations that support neighborhood development. Peter is founder of Designed Learning. They are coauthors of The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods (Berrett-Koehler).

Local Food Online Resources list courtesy of Fresh Taste