06/12/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

We've Got Civil Rights; Now, We Just Need Civil Eats


Every Monday brings another gloomy, doomy dispatch from the pessimistic prince of Sunday punditry, Paul Krugman. The Nobel-prize-winning Princeton economics professor and New York Times columnist is on the record--and the front of last week's Newsweek--expressing deep skepticism about the bank bailout and keeping grown-ups across America awake at night with a frightening fable, The (Too) Little-Stimulus-That-Couldn't.

But wait! This Monday, Krugman was feeling cautiously optimistic about the President's proposed health care overhaul. Is Obama's enthusiasm for reforming our health care system contagious? An uncharacteristically upbeat Krugman wrote:

...on Saturday, excited administration officials called me to say that this time the medical-industrial complex (their term, not mine) is offering to be helpful.

Six major industry players -- including America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), a descendant of the lobbying group that spawned Harry and Louise -- have sent a letter to President Obama sketching out a plan to control health care costs. What's more, the letter implicitly endorses much of what administration officials have been saying about health economics.

Are there reasons to be suspicious about this gift? You bet -- and I'll get to that in a bit. But first things first: on the face of it, this is tremendously good news.

Krugman's feeling hopeful! Stop the presses! It was front page news on HuffPo: Paul Krugman: Health Care Proposal "Some Of The Best Policy News I've Heard In A Long Time."

And no wonder--Obama's proposal marks a sea change, effectively putting Big Pharma and Big Food on notice. No more of this laissez-faire "let them eat cake (and get sick)" approach--prevention may finally be getting its due. After all, we can only achieve so much cost-cutting through greater efficiency. The true savings will come from promoting wellness, not subsidizing illness.

Skeptics are focused, understandably, on the fact that the participants in this photo op have only pledged to voluntarily reduce costs. Was Monday's photo-op a turning point for the future of health care in America, or a pointless turn for health industry heavyweights trying to head off more stringent reforms?

The Wall Street Journal's betting on real reform, noting "The odds that American's health-care system will be overhauled this year just went up--and may have gone up by a lot."

What's the deal? Krugman sounding cheerful? Obama proposing real change? Health industry insiders tossing Harry and Louise off the cliff à la Thelma and Louise?

And all this on a Monday. Coincidence, or the handiwork of the Healthy Monday Mob? Call them the Cosa Just-Say-Nostra--you know, the folks who want you to jumpstart each week by going meatless, or smokefree, or passing up the passive tv viewing to get out and bike, or hike, or get your butt to the gym.

The Healthy Monday campaign--a non-profit public health initiative launched in collaboration with Johns Hopkins University, Columbia University and Syracuse University--has done the math. They've figured out that we could save billions, if only we could make a dent in all those chronic, preventable--i.e., self-inflicted--diseases whose rising costs will deliver the knock-out punch to our reeling economy if we don't shape up.

As White House budget director Peter Orzag told Reuters on Monday, "The single most important thing we could do to address our long term fiscal problem is to address the growth rate of healthcare costs."

Ah, but what about Big Pharma, the "military-industrial complex" that's made a fortune peddling Lipitor, Prozac, Viagra, and other pricey prescription drugs for our modern day maladies? We may be the most medicated nation on earth; as Melody Peterson notes in Our Daily Meds, Americans doubled what we spent on cars from 1980 to 2002; during the same period, our spending on prescription drugs jumped by 17 times. Won't their bottom line suffer if we start taking better care of ourselves?

And then there's Big Pharma's best friend, Big Food, the cheap carb cabal whose primary purpose is to maximize shareholders' profits by encouraging Americans to load up on crappy processed foods full of empty calories and contaminants.

I don't want to say that unfettered capitalism is bad for your health, but, well, unfettered capitalism is bad for your health. And the planet's. Hence the current controversy over Annie Leonard's Story of Stuff video, which does a brilliant job of connecting the dots between our rampant consumerism and the toll it takes on ourselves and our surroundings.

Leonard's video, an inspired collaboration with clever animator/activist Louis Fox and his team at Free Range Studios (who also brought us The Meatrix series)--is "a cheerful but brutal assessment of how much Americans waste," as the New York Times described it.

The video has proven to be a powerful teaching tool about the perils of mindless consumption. But that message plays better in some communities than others; the Times article cites a school board in Missoula County, Montana that "decided that screening the video treaded on academic freedom after a parent complained that its message was anticapitalist."

I'm not quite clear on how pointing out the downside of our shopaholic culture infringes on academic freedom. But, as Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved: The Hidden Battle For The World Food System, is fond of noting, what we've got here in America is not a democracy, but rather a "Mountain Dewmocracy"--that is, the illusion of choice.

The late, great George Carlin said essentially the same thing to WNYC's Brian Lehrer back in 2007:

Lehrer: I read that you don't vote, is that right?

Carlin: That's right, that's right...

Lehrer: You've been quoted saying that elections only give us the illusion of choice, that's how you feel?

Carlin: Yeah, I think Americans are led to feel free by the illusion of choice, all through this culture. The only choice you really have in this country is paper or plastic, cash or credit, diet or regular, Coke or Pepsi. We don't really have choices in this country.

Instead, we've got the corporate-financed Center For Consumer Freedom defending the beverage industry's right to sell a seemingly infinite variety of bottled beverages in every possible venue, from school cafeterias to hospital lobbies, despite the fact that excess soda consumption contributes to a whole range of illnesses, including "Mountain Dew Mouth," an Appalachian affliction that comes from filling your toddler's sippy cup with soda.

Meanwhile, try finding a public drinking fountain that works, not to mention tap water that's not contaminated by traces of prescription drugs, pesticides, plastics, and all the other stuff we dump in our sewage systems. That's why Elizabeth Royte, the author of Bottlemania: How Water Went On Sale And Why We Bought It, has called for a renewed commitment to public drinking fountains and better protection of our public water supply.

Is that anti-capitalist, to suggest that our tax payer dollars should help support free and safe drinking water? Is it anti-capitalist to suggest that we might want to stop subsidizing the convenience foods that are inconviently killing us, and focus on promoting farm fresh, healthy produce instead?

As the soon-to-be-released documentary Food, Inc. notes, 1 in 3 Americans born after 2000 will contract early onset diabetes; among minorities, the rate will be 1 in 2. And the film's website adds that "It is expected that 86% of the American population will be overweight or obese by 2030 unless habits change." And you thought WALL-E was science fiction?

Yes, habits must change, but in order to accomplish that, you've got to give consumers true freedom of choice. Half a century ago, four young black men launched a historic sit-in at a "whites only" lunch counter in a Woolworth in Greensboro, North Carolina:

"I wanted a cheeseburger with french fries," recalled Jibreel Khazan, whose name at the time was Ezell Blair Jr. Woolworth's refused to serve him. Now, of course, there's no shortage of fast food joints flooding the inner cities with all the cheeseburgers and fries they can stomach--and then some. What's lacking is access to healthy foods. The end result has been an explosion of obesity and diabetes among the poor; it's a terrible cost to pay for all those cheap calories.

And, incredibly, once all that diet-induced disease lands you in the hospital, you're likely to find more of the same--some hospitals even have fast food franchises on their premises, not to mention vending machines full of junk food. As brilliant young ag-tivist Annie Myers points out on her blog:

Fresh, local vegetables are healthier than processed foods. We should have them in our hospitals. Access to nutritious food should be factored into policy as preventative care.

There are several significant reasons why this hasn't happened yet. First, four companies control 80 percent of America's beef production. Two companies process 75 percent of the precut salads in the country. The voices of such companies are powerful in Washington.

Second, pharmaceutical companies aren't big on preventative health care. Hospitals and pharmaceutical companies are in cahoots.

Third, the industrialization of America's food system destroyed much of the infrastructure that would have allowed large institutions to source locally. In almost any region of the country (except perhaps California), it is difficult to coordinate the arrival of enough locally grown food at a hospital kitchen.

Fourth, our policymakers aren't prone to holistic thinking, and so we are left struggling to find something other than band-aids to help heal our environment, our economy, and our health. We don't usually consider the complex options that might help cure, all at once, these ailing elements of our society. And finally, we need a leader. We need someone in Washington who will commit to introducing healthy food into hospitals, and who will integrate nutritious food into our health care plans.

Just as we had a Civil Rights movement, we need to launch a Civil Eats movement, to borrow a name from one of the blogosphere's most passionate sustainable ag advocates. Civil Eats editor Paula Crossfield believes that "it's our right as a society to have good food," but that we also have "a duty to participate in our food production"--i.e., know where our food comes from, how it's produced, and use our buying power to support sustainable farming. Her Civil Eats colleague Naomi Starkman added that "eating--as well as growing food, and protecting farmland--is a civic act."

So we need to do our part, as well as demand better of our politicians. Obama may yet prove to be the leader we need in Washington when it comes to championing fresh fruits and vegetables, but in the meantime--as I've noted before--New York City is blessed with our own Pollan-ated politician, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, whose Food In the Public Interest report offers a comprehensive strategy for addressing the many inequities and challenges of our current food system.

Stringer's grasp of the issues has duly impressed Joan Gussow, the revered Columbia nutrition professor who's the most optimistic she's ever been in the forty years she's been working to change our food chain. As Gussow noted in a keynote speech she gave at Columbia Teachers College recently on the heels of a speech from Stringer calling on New York City to relocalize its food system:

"Well, now, if anyone had told me thirty years ago, that I would be standing on the stage at Teachers College just after the Manhattan Borough President had talked about New York City's foodshed, I would have thought they were smoking dope."

Stringer held a press conference in front of a Harlem KFC a week or so ago to unveil an initiative called "FoodStat," his latest strategy to improve access to fresh healthy foods in neighborhoods where a surplus of fast food outlets and shortage of supermarkets or other vendors of healthier foods has contributed to a disproportionately high incidence of obesity, diabetes, and other diet-related diseases.

"Just as we measure the air quality of different neighborhoods," Stringer said, "We should measure the quality of a neighborhood's retail food environment. Both have a direct effect on health. And both can be improved through smart city planning. Food policy is the new environmental policy, especially in our cities."

While Stringer hopes eventually to expand FoodStat citywide, the initial report focuses on a comparison between East Harlem and the Upper East Side. The differences are dramatic: 31 percent of East Harlem residents are obese, compared to 9 percent of Upper East Siders (the city average is 22 percent.) Not coincidentally, the study found that East Harlem residents have double the number of unhealthy food options as Upper East Side residents, and fewer outlets offering healthier alternatives.

So, memo to Oprah--who has done a tremendous number of good things and undoubtedly has the best of intentions:

Next time you want to do something to help feed your fellow Americans, take a look around and see if there's someone you could partner with who is actively working to foster wellness by encouraging folks to cut back on meat and consume more fresh, wholesome, unprocessed foods. You might ruffle a few factory farm feathers, but think of all the lives you could change--for the better. Have you got anything planned for next Monday?