By: Ellis Goodman
I admire Michelle Obama, the First Lady, who has focused on healthy eating and reducing childhood obesity since entering the White House. The recent announcement by Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer of a 5-year-plan to make thousands of its packaged foods lower in unhealthy fats, sugars and salts and to reduce its prices on fruits and vegetables, was a welcome step in the right direction. Furthermore, it appears that Walmart will be pressing its major food suppliers like Kraft to follow suit.
I believe that Walmart’s intentions are genuine and not just “green-wash,” but I also believe that they recognize the commercial value of their decision and the favorable publicity and public support that their actions will bring. Maybe it also signals a recognition, that the public is demanding more healthy food and, indeed, locally grown organic fruits and vegetables, which will gradually move the U.S. toward the public’s demands in most European countries. However unfortunately in the U.S., this will not be an easy task because, as always, our Congress and “special interests” are going to get in the way.
For decades now, Congress has been providing massive subsidies to our corn and soy bean farmers. Initially, this was designed to help family farmers survive and compete in the world by encouraging exports. What has happened over the past couple of decades, however, is that the family farm is rapidly disappearing, to be replaced by massive multi-national corporate owners who efficiently farm vast acreage heavily saturated with pesticides or worse, genetically modified seeds. These special interest subsidies have recently been compounded by additional help for ethanol producers, a highly inefficient but politically lucrative way of providing even more subsidies to these farmers. The massive production of corn products has led to the introduction of corn syrups into virtually all our processed foods and many other products, which have become part of the U.S. staple diet. While these subsidies and mass production has made processed foods, in particular, extremely price competitive, it has also been a major contributor to our health and obesity problems, as our population from an early age, gets “hooked” on sugary, sweet-tasting foods and beverages.
At the other end of the scale, it is well known that our consumption of fruits and vegetables – a healthy diet – is far too low, particularly in lower-income areas. People who live in those areas complain that fruits and vegetables are just too expensive; and, compared to the processed foods and sugary drinks that are available, that is true. Unfortunately, Congress does not provide any subsidies or financial help to fruit and vegetable farmers. As a result, U.S. costs are not particularly competitive and, thus we are a major importer of pesticide infected and preserved, fruits and vegetables from other countries, particularly Mexico and Central America.
If Michelle Obama and Walmart want to make a much stronger impact on children’s health and obesity in this country, their focus should now be to reduce incentives to our corn and soybean farmers, and focus on helping our fruit and vegetable (particularly local organic) farmers so as they can provide healthy produce for all U.S. citizens. We can only live in hope.
Ellis M. Goodman, author of Bear Any Burden: www.bearanyburden.com