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Food for Thought

Michelle K. Pyke
University of Washington

It is an unfortunate truth today that in the United States, heart disease is the leading cause of

death. Despite the widespread fear of murder and terrorism (a phenomenon taken advantage of

by media sources), a disease that originates from poor nutritional choices has remained at the top

of the list for decades. Unlike incurable chronic diseases, obesity is a preventable disorder that

can be treated through lifestyle changes, namely ones diet. I argue that the U.S. government

should tax businesses that are directly involved with the production of processed food items.

This, among other effects, will provide an economic incentive to buy naturally grown products

and reduce the negative externalities associated with poor consumer choices.

A Recipe for the Soul

Technology, Entertainment and Design (otherwise known as TED) is a nonprofit organization

that releases clips and articles that introduce ideas worth spreading. Amy Choi wrote a

particularly intriguing piece entitled What Americans can learn from other food cultures in

December of 2014 and I think that her introduction masterfully summarizes why cuisine has

continued to touch the lives of individuals across the international community. She immediately

lures the reader in with: Food feeds the soul. To the extent that we all eat food, and we all have

souls, food is the single great unifier across cultures. Now this is what I would like to think of

as the heart of my argument. It is apparent that food is a reflection of a states culture and the

United States should consider whether its image presently is one to be proud of or one to shy
away from. Improving the quality of products and ultimately transforming the public face of

American cuisine is a future worth shaping into reality.

The spread of globalization does not pertain only to economic systems, but also cultural

tastes and preferences. Cheap and quick meals are widely popular in the United States, so it

comes as no surprise that local establishments provide exactly that without so much as a glance

at the repercussions of consuming their goods. There should be a higher standard for what is

available in the market, but free trade naturally encourages competition; Consequentially,

increasing regulations domestically could cause imports for similar products to escalate. This

would be counterproductive, as the general population would merely buy the same products that

have been hurting their health for years. However, according to a study conducted in April 2015

by Dr. Edward Jaenicke of Pennsylvania State University, both exports and imports of U.S.

organic foods have risen significantly, suggesting that the international community has an

interest in this sector as well. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) notes that

the number of farmers markets in the U.S. has been escalating since 1994 (from 1,755 to 8,144

in 2013), which correlates with a strong demand for local organic products. Therefore, there is an

underlying indication that American consumers seek affordable alternatives to processed food

and will support these products if there is a financial gain from doing so.

The Organic Lifestyle

Dan Barber, the executive chef at New Yorks Blue Hill restaurant, is an impressive figure. In

2009, he received the James Beard award for Americas Outstanding Chef and was selected as

one of the worlds most influential people in Times annual Time 100 list. His thoughtful

dialogue between diner and chef is derived from his philosophy of introducing the natural
wonder of farms and the simple, yet ever-so-meaningful, table for an evening meal. Every

element of what he serves has no intention of hiding its true colors, and that I think is lost in the

routine meals of ordinary households.

The mere mention of the word organic triggers a wide range of reactions in the

American populace. Critics of the organic lifestyle rightfully point out that a grocery list

composed of seasonal vegetables and fruits is significantly more expensive than packaged

products that can be microwaved in minutes. The reasoning behind this is all too telling. The

truth is that organic farmers suffer from higher costs due to their choices to avoid unnatural

factors of production. The traditional food industry uses more efficient methods due to its

emphasis on quick solutions to supply an ever-growing population of consumers. However,

business models should not replace moral obligations. Fortunately, due to the increasing demand

for organic products, the number of suppliers has significantly risen in response. This has helped

lower costs for consumers and it continues to do so as time passes. What I would like to point out

is that a morning of grocery shopping doesnt have to be equated with losing a limb at the end of

the day. There are products, such as canned black beans and brown rice, which are sold in large

quantities at low prices. The alternatives exist, but how can hesitant consumers be influenced to

make these choices?

The Fear of Fat

Kelli Jean Drinkwater, an artist and activist deeply involved with prevalent body politics,

recently gave a TED talk on the implicit biases against obese individuals. She encourages those

who may not fit the ideal body image to seek acceptance in their own skin. This type of thinking

is both immensely beneficial, but also misleading. The message that she represents may inspire
people to passively accept unhealthy lifestyles because being overweight is considered a

permanent element of ones identity, much like ones name. An important note is that the obesity

epidemic is not only a socially constructed issue. If it was, then it would be increasingly similar

to the fight against racism. However, humanity is not a microcosm of heartless and arrogant

individuals. Philanthropy is an honorable effort and encouraging individuals to be healthy is not

intended to be a form of criticism; it is a signal to say that we hope to work with their perceived

limitations. The objective is not to reach the perfect body, but to form habits that respect ones

health. There is a wide range of issues presented by this movement, all of which cannot possibly

be addressed in this single paper, but some questions that we must consider are: 1. Should the

cost for fighting against the obesity epidemic fall upon those who will directly benefit from it or

all of society? 2. How can we change the misconceptions about the organic movement? Is

organic farming a solution in any case? 3. Why is processed food the norm in the U.S. and how

does it connect to the rise of obesity? Is there data that suggests otherwise?

A reoccurring complaint by consumers is that being healthy is simply too expensive, in

terms of diet and the demands of exercise in particular. This type of logic is fair; there is no

question about it. The fact is that consumers are not the only ones at fault. The industry,

according to NPR, spends billions of dollars marketing junk food and drinks with unnecessary

amounts of sugar. Progress cannot be made by condoning behavior on rare occasions because

businesses have no incentive to change their practices if they face weak pressure. Therefore, why

not directly target their financial motivations? Using the basic principles of microeconomics, a

government issued tax against an industry will cause supply to fall and the market price to rise in

response. Organic food, in this instance, is a substitute for processed food, meaning that if prices

increase in one, the latter will decrease. As a result, a significant number of customers will flood
the organic food market, which will open even more opportunities for entrepreneurs to develop

their own businesses in this industry. The imposition of taxes, in theory, compensates for the

negative costs of externalities, which are the medical consequences of regularly consuming

processed food products in this example.

It is inevitable that corporations will not support this tax, but it is vital to mention that

low-income consumers may still harbor concerns. Organic products are not as widely available

as we would like and so, individuals may fear that they will be forced to pay higher prices for

processed items that used to fall within their budget. However, an alternative step can be taken.

Fruits and vegetables are commonplace products in the marketplace. They may not be labeled as

organic, but buying from the traditional farming sector is still better than from big names in the

food industry (such as The Coca-Cola Company). Thus, there are still reasonable options to

choose from even with scarce resources.

Conclusion

The obesity epidemic is a complex issue that questions the true definition of healthy and

whether it is ones duty to encourage changes in consumer behavior. The promise of the organic

food industry is one that should not be overlooked, despite how it may be perceived in certain

communities. Whether there is a government-imposed tax or a social program, as long as the

search for solutions does not seize in the midst of criticism, progress will be made.