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The Food Fascists are Coming! The Food Fascists are Coming!

By JoshMogerman in Food on Nov 7, 2010 4:00PM

Swiss cheese art [atomicShed]
Ahh, the paranoia continues. First, it was those insidious “the government is trying to tell you what to eat” TV ads that sadly continue to run even after the election. Now it is the Trib’s Steve Chapman railing on soda taxes and the San Francisco anti-Happy Meal ordinance. You can hear the chorus now, "I'll give you my Quarter Pounder with Cheese and Big Gulp, when you take it from my cold dead hands."

Both imply a looming and dangerous government threat to your gut. The advertisement, placed by the beverage industry, makes it sound as though a bill is coming which will limit your choices in the grocery aisle---though none exists. And, Chapman’s column is particularly frustrating in that, surprise, he oversimplifies. Sadly, there is nothing simple about food issues these days. It sounds great to imply these issues are about personal choice, nothing more:

The nice thing about eating is that the person who makes good or bad choices is the one who reaps the reward or penalty. If I scarf a cheesecake, you don't gain weight. And if I decide that consigning myself to the Big and Tall Store is not such a bad option, it's not your place to stop me from doing so.

It would be great if the real world was so black and white. But it doesn't work that way. Chapman admits that food choices can lead to obesity and create a burden on the medical system, which is a direct cost out of everyone else’s wallet. Whatever you think about the bruising fight over national health care, it is impossible to ignore the implications of health issues on our economy.

But even that is likely oversimplifying the issue. Chapman’s column implies that there is a choice. In many of Chicago’s neighborhoods, there is not. Numerous areas of the City offer easy access to high-fat, low nutrition fast food---but limited or no access to grocery stores with healthier alternatives. And worse, our system of subsidies and industrial food products make the bad stuff significantly cheaper than fresh fruits, vegetables, and meats. There is plenty of academic and government research out there pointing to increased diabetes and early mortality in these areas of limited nutritional choice.

Look at today’s New York Times article on the split personality of the United States Department of Agriculture. On one hand they are promoting healthy eating programs. On the other, their Dairy Management division is actively marketing cheese-intensive fast food concepts with massively increased cholesterol and caloric counts. The Times notes that the typical American’s annual cheese consumption has tripled to an average of 33 pounds over the last 40 years; despite the fact that USDA’s own data cites cheese as a major in the excess levels of saturated fat in the nation’s diet (and heart disease being one of the leading causes of death in the U.S.).

Don’t get us wrong, we love, love, love cheese---an assault on Wisconsin is unnecessary (against cheese curds anyway). And Happy Meals are treasured childhood memories that we would hate to pull from the kids of today. But the Trib column points out that there are plenty of places where government regulation is reasonable---and we think this could eventually be one if a rational public conversation was possible. It’s not when cynical and simple messages about government overreach from Chapman and industry groups belie (or obscure) the complicated set of cultural and economic factors at play.