indicators of econ-obesity growth

Obesity is still on the rise. In many cities there have been decade-long campaigns to improve healthy food access, spread information about health risks, and new national efforts to get children active – are they not working? Latest estimates predict that by 2030 almost half the adult population will be obese. Recently, the CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) wrote in the Washington Post about their latest report and the future impact of obesity on our economy. She noted the decline of productivity and increasing health care costs associated with obesity. While we often think about fast food, inactivity, and individual choices related to being obese, how often do we consider the economic causes and effects?

Obesity is Not a Choice

I have never met anyone who said that they specifically chose to suffer the health effects of being obese because they thought it would be a great way to live. However, beyond personal choices, obesity can be correlated with a number of social and environmental factors, namely: poverty, urban areas, as well as minority and low-income populations.

Just as individuals cannot choose their parents, they also cannot choose their life circumstances, which unfortunately can sometimes hinder efforts to live a healthier lifestyle. Research has shown that rising rates of obesity disproportionately affect Black and Hispanic populations. This demonstrates a confluence of factors with roots in racially motivated housing policies, lack of social mobility due to historical discrimination, and the absence of adequate health services for these communities.

Impoverished communities are filled with companies looking to take advantage of the marketplace of poverty. Dollar menus, frozen dinners, and corner store snacks – not to mention the advertising which helps build a psychological belief that it is quicker and cheaper to eat unhealthy foods.

In short, obesity is just as much an economic reality as it is a need for healthier lifestyles. It represents a by-product of mass producing foods to reduce costs and increase profits. People do not choose to live in poverty nor do they choose to be obese. Economic constraints on top of fast food advertising drives a culture of  unhealthy eating.

Tax the Fat

The debates have raged about recent plans to tax the size of soda pop in New York City or in other countries the tax on fatty foods. There is a growing field of research on behavioral economics, which argues that people will choose the option that is most beneficial to themselves.

This is, however, not always true. People do not always make the most rational decision especially when it comes to their food and eating habits. Increasing the economic burden on people who typically choose unhealthy foods is not necessarily the best option. If a tax is placed on high-calorie or high fat foods it allows the food and beverage companies to continue avoiding responsibility. It isn’t about personal freedom, it is about being able to compete in a marketplace where the cards are constantly stacked against the poor.

Food and beverage companies will still find a cheap way to produce their products that works around any tax or restrictive policy. These companies have a primary goal to make a profit. If making that profit means burdening the population with unhealthy foods and the long-term health effects, they have no qualms. This is where people generally argue that it is about personal choice. This is partly true, but also relates to my first argument that you can’t always choose your life circumstances. All around the world now people are struggling with obesity and healthy eating. Food and beverage corporations are able to take advantage of global income and food disparities to generate their profits.

Behaviors Always Win

Using a “fat tax” to increase the economic difficulty of buying unhealthy food is doing no good when there is a psychological war on TV and advertising campaigns.

“It’s the behavior stupid!”

We can talk all day about the responsibilities that corporations have to give people healthy foods as well as the responsibility of individuals to keep themselves healthy, but in the end it all comes down to behavior. When I say behavior I’m talking about the eating habits that people have learned since their childhood, the behavior influenced by the food commercials seen on TV, the behavior informed by the massive portion-sized, “give me what I paid for” food culture.

When we are constantly bombarded by images of juicy burgers, steaming pizzas, and actors telling us how amazing it is to get quick, cheap food – we will eventually believe it. Food and beverage companies employ their own teams of psychologists to be able to manipulate their advertising to be the most convincing. These companies have found out the best ways to exploit the disparities that people face in order to get more people to buy their unhealthy foods. Don’t have time to make dinner? Bring your kid through the drive-through. Buying groceries on a budget? Get 3 for $5 cases of pop or 2 for $5 bags of potato chips.

When it all comes down to what will or won’t work, people need to understand what they are up against, they need to be informed on what foods will benefit their health, and they also need to be able to have the tools to make healthy lifestyle changes. While many food companies watch their profits grow, many individuals watch their weight grow due to their own economic disparities. Helping people address these learned behaviors and economic barriers will help to reduce health care spending and increase the productivity of our economy.

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young people for. . .

This year I have been awarded a fellowship through the Young People For the American Way. YP4 is a youth-driven and youth-led program that brings together young leaders and activists who are eager to ensure that their voices are heard on critical issues, such as civil liberties, the judiciary, free speech, the environment, and civil rights. The program is designed for serious people who are interested in becoming more effective leaders and making a difference. I am happy and honored to say that I have been chosen as one of those people. Coming up this month in roughly 6 days is the National Summit of all the progressive leaders chosen for the fellwoship. I am very excited to be headed to Washington D.C. and meet the outstanding student leaders from across the US.

“In every deliberation we must consider the impact on the seventh generation. . .”
– Great law of Peace of the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy)

As I have said before, I am an idealist – or that is how many people define me – I am a dreamer, but I keep the realities of the world close at hand. In my young age I have experienced so much, met so many inspiring people, seen so much suffering, and witnessed an incredible amount of hope. I dream, but I also see my dreams come to life, I hope and that hope becomes an embodied passion. I dream of a world where my children can live and have no fear. Fear is merely the term used when there is an absence of compassion. I dream of a world where peace is the norm, we will cooperate and coexist and accept one another for who he or she may be. I dream of a world where passion for life and the well-being of others drives the world and not lust for fame, fortune, or the frivolity of things. I dream and I hope. One of my favorite quotes: “Dreams do not meet the overhead, believers do.” A person who does not dream cannot be a believer, but a dreamer has to do more than just envision, a dreamer has to put their heart and soul into their dreams. What I see as the greatest problem in our country (USA) and in our world is the great lack of passion and compassion in society. Where there is a lack of passion there is a lack of purpose. Where there is a lack of compassion there is a lack of hopes and dreams. This all leads to what we are experiencing today – a government with little citizen participation, a society bent on getting more, a world caught up in greed, and a cynical base of societal leaders.

The most basic human emotion of compassion is neglected. People need to be relating to one another as equals. Our pain is the same yet in this world that seems to bring no gain. Broken and dying the poverty stricken are lying at society’s doorsteps. Who will it be who brings about the change in people’s attitudes? What will you do? Today people relate to one another through historical class structures that have somehow made it into the modern world. We go to the schools of our same class (private, public), we attend the same stores as our class, and we meet at the same community centers as our class. Capitalism has driven us apart, its drive for more profit at any cost and hierarchical divisons make us insensitive to the plights of others – because they are below us. Yes, you guessed it I am a socialist. No, not a communist – a socialist, there is a difference. I believe that when economics and class structures are leveled then we will live in a truly equal (and then free) world. When we do not rely on gaining for ourselves, but for our neighbors then we will be a free society. When we can work together to end poverty of all peoples then democracy will be true.

This can all be changed as the decision making power lies with the people. Right now the people do not realize this because those in power use fear to control and gain more power. War, terrorism, flu pandemics – be very afraid and give more power to your government to protect you. No, this is where people need to step up and be more involved democrats (as in a supporter of democracy – not political party)! If we truly live in a democracy then we the people need to be sure that the powerful know what is at stake. Democracy is more than just an idea and a great white building – democracy is a mindset of the people. Democracy is more than a building and less than a person. Democracy lives outside the great buildings of Washington D.C., but has more power than each man or woman gives to it. The decision making power seems to fearfully reside with the primp and proper politicians on the hill, but truly the power resides in the hands of the people – we only need more passion and compassion!

This is just a glance at what concepts and values are in the world I imagine for the future. I believe it to be a possibility. Even more than a possibility, a hope. When we embolden and embody our passions and compassion, when we realize career politicians have no place in America, when we recognize that we each hold the power to help one another and change the world, only then will my imagination be served no longer. The burning issues of passion and compassion live on my campus, in my community, and in our country. When a student refuses to listen to all sides and later decide on their own, when a community leader pushes for a ban of rights for underserved people, when a country bows to fear – this is when the burning issues of passion and compassion rule the day. I strongly believe that the youth of today hold the creativity and the answers to reverse this trend and change the world for the better of society. The youth are the future, we are the future, what do want to see in your future?