by James McWilliams
from Pacific Standard
Tis the season for obligatory year-end articles that dutifully assess our changing eating habits. In 2014, we wolfed down kale until it came out of our ears, ate like cavemen, entered the Zone, turned “gluten-free” into a name brand, and became enamored with anything and everything “artisanal,” especially yummy crusty bread.
These stories can be fun—little mirrors held up to our fickle and free-ranging culinary selves. But for all their value they can also mask an underlying reality far more consequential to our dietary situation: The only trend that the majority of us actually followed en masse was an unfortunate continuation of the standard American diet. We maintained, in other words, a dogged dependency on processed food, excess sweeteners, and industrially sourced animal products (namely cheese and ground beef) that fosters an obesity crisis so severe that a major pharmaceutical company has rung in the New Year by celebrating the Food & Drug Administration approval of a new obesity drug called Saxenda.
The existence of Saxenda reminds us that there’s a different “we” out there than the one the media entertains with Facebook-ready stories about foodie preoccupations and quirks. This “we” is less educated, less wealthy, less concerned with the nutritional or sustainable aspects of dietary choice, less Internet savvy, and, most notably, far more likely to be obese, often morbidly so, than the more rarified “we” who views the artisanal quality of bread as a matter of political significance.
Eating well certainly requires a basic level of economic empowerment, but it also demands a less obvious kind of cultural empowerment, one that’s integral to how we absorb dietary information and, ideally, act on it.
Naturally, there are plenty of highly educated, wealthy, nutritionally informed, and ecologically aware members of the urban elite who suffer from obesity. But for them the excess weight is less a chronic and inescapable condition than something you’ll eventually deal with—and have the resources to deal with—when the time seems right. Most Americans—the other “we”—are locked in a cultural milieu so resource skewed that it’s extremely difficult to escape the obesity trap, much less even know that you’re in it (I suspect most obese people don’t see themselves as victims). For them, the time for addressing the problem is never right.
It’s easy to overlook the debilitating culinary culture of the other “we.” This is not only because so much of our food discussions hinge on the narcissism of small differences (gluten free, organic, non-GMO, what have you), but also because we have only the vaguest notion what the culture of obesity looks like and how it operates. Yes, as I’ve explained elsewhere, economic disadvantage matters—there’s a direct correlation between obesity and poverty. But there’s much more to it than that. Eating well certainly requires a basic level of economic empowerment, but it also demands a less obvious kind of cultural empowerment, one that’s integral to how we absorb dietary information and, ideally, act on it.
In the most basic sense, this culinary/cultural awareness relies on a symbiotic interaction of three intertwined factors: education, urbanization, and quick access to information. There are a lot of innovative and impassioned things experts are doing to fight obesity. But the fact remains: The more we foster these deeper, seemingly non-food related developments, the closer we move toward a healthier culinary culture, one that arms citizens with weapons to resist and mitigate the multiplying horrors of this relatively recent crisis.
To illustrate the gross disparity that the aforementioned factors represent, it helps to juxtapose Mississippi and Massachusetts. Mississippi has the highest obesity rate in the country (35.1 percent); Massachusetts has the second lowest (behind Hawaii) at 23.6 percent. Mississippi has the lowest rate of fruit and vegetable consumption; Massachusetts has the fourth highest. Mississippi has the second highest rate of diabetes (15.7 percent); Massachusetts has one of the lowest (8.3 percent). All things considered, Mississippi is one of the unhealthiest states while Massachusetts is one of the healthiest.
Now consider the relevant indices. Mississippi’s per capita income is the lowest in the country ($20, 670); Massachusetts is the fourth highest ($35,485). A number of culturally significant disparities follow. Mississippi ranks 48th in percentage ofadults with a bachelor’s degree (19.6 percent) and 46th in those with advanced degrees (7.1 percent); Massachusetts ranks number one for both (38.2 percent and 16.4 percent, respectively). Just over 60 percent of Mississippians live in a house with high-speed Internet access (ranking last); 85.3 percent of Massachusetts residents live in a home with a high-speed connection. Less than half of Mississippi’s population is urbanized; Massachusetts is more than 90 percent urbanized.
These disparate populations end up making food choices in radically different venues, ones that espouse radically different culinary values. There are 29 Whole Foods stores in Massachusetts—about one for every 230,000 people; Mississippi’s three million people share one Whole Foods, a handsome little deal off I-55 in Jackson. Whole Foods shoppers are inundated with health-related information when they stride down aisles of goods promoted predominantly for their nutrient density. See, for example, the store’s ANDI rating system or its Plant Strong initiative, or just visit its juice bar or attend a cooking demo. Whole Foods has been a prime target of criticism on many fronts over the years, but nobody can deny its genuine dedication to healthy eating habits. In this respect, it has been a true pioneer.
If Whole Foods has a polar opposite, it would have to be Walmart. There are 50 Walmart stores in Massachusetts—about 7.5 per million people; there are 73 of them in Mississippi—about 24.4 per million people. Walmart certainly lends lip service to eating in a healthy fashion, but it’s bread and butter is high-volume sales of junk food that is, first and foremost, cheap. Don’t misunderstand me: Whole Foods sells a lot of junk food and Walmart, well, Walmart is a big supporter of local produce. But insofar as each company contributes to the country’s culinary culture, one is all Massachusetts and the other is pure Mississippi.
Obese people in Mississippi—and, of course, other parts of the country in similar if less severe circumstances—are victims of a pre-existing culture. It’s a culture not only marked by poverty, but by sclerotic access to education, information, and a variety of relevant urban amenities. Obesity is a problem whose symptoms we have no choice but to continue to fight—even with drugs such as Saxenda—but until we better identify and address the deeper causes of these symptoms, the big food trend in 2015 will be business as usual, again.