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Michelle: Talk to Your Husband About Obesity

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First Lady Michelle Obama has a plan for licking obesity in the United States -- she's going to grow a vegetable garden and speak to elementary school classes about nutrition. That should rectify the couple of hundred million cases of overweight in this country, don't you think?

Not if you saw and believed the Robert Kenner film, Food, Inc., the other night on PBS. Interviewing Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma), and others, Kenner depicted an American food system and diet that is badly out of whack.

Corn production is heavily subsidized by the government, masking its environmental, transportation, and processing costs. Since corn now goes into the entire range of overweight-producing foods (Fritos, sodas, and even meat, as the staple for feeding cattle, pigs, and chickens), the U.S. is now essentially subsidizing obesity.

Food, Inc. shows a family of four eating at a McDonald's for under 12 bucks, while the fresh produce and other food necessary for a rounded home-cooked meal would cost them considerably more. Along with soft drinks, corn-based snacks, and sugar products, Americans have been eating ever more meat, the price of which has been declining in relation to other foods.

Getting hundreds of millions of people to change their individual or family diets is a formidable task, especially when we consider that Americans have been growing steadily fatter for several decades. What would seriously make us expect we can reverse such decisive, long-term behavior?

Change on a societal level occurs when the fundamental drivers in society change, so that the system itself encourages eating fresh vegetables and other foods, home-cooking, et cetera. While Michelle Obama regularly denies that she influences her husband on policy issues, she better start working on changing the entire national system of food production if she really wants to impact American obesity rates and health.

Otherwise, she's plowing in the dark.

P.S. (May 25): From Michael Pollan, "The Food Movement, Rising," New York Review of Books (June 10, 2010): "This and other industry-friendly appointments suggest that while the administration may be sympathetic to elements of the food movement's agenda, it isn't about to take on agribusiness, at least not directly, at least until it senses at its back a much larger constituency for reform."

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