My Take on Newsweek's Dinner Divide

Newsweek's November 29 2010 issue's cover story was about the great differences between rich, nutrition and environment-conscious eaters and poor, nutrition and environment-oblivious eaters in America.  It was an interesting article, but I have some comments.

I object to the divisive and sensationalist language, such as the comment that "America is a place of extremes, and what you eat for dinner has become the definitive marker of social status..."  That is ridiculous.  Like pretty much everything, America is a place of relatively normal distributions.  Sure, the ultra-rich have gotten ultra-richer over the decades as they manipulate our government, but the overwhelming majority of citizens are in the big middle of the bell.  Secondly, there is no way that dinner is the definitive marker of status.  A third party looking at my great dinners and small apartment compared to someone with a six-figure income who owns a big house but eats fast food is not going suggest that I am of higher status.

The article talks about 50 million Americans living in food insecurity, one third of whom are have very low security, and ties this phenomenon in with poverty, but then goes on to point out that poverty and reliance on food stamps linked to obesity, but it fails to discuss the connection between food insecurity and obesity.  The connection is not obvious, and any astute reader should ask "how are so many people obese and not getting enough food at the same time?"  There is no talk of metabolism.  When a person does not eat regularly, even within the course of a day, that person's metabolism slows down, burning fewer calories and storing more as fat because the body (hypothalamus) worries that the irregularity of food intake is a sign of impending starvation for a time.  The body wants to build up fat stores and use as little energy as possible so that the person can survive until food is available again.  When a person on supplementary nutrition assistance (SNAP, not really food stamps anymore) squanders the rations before the next month, eating a lot for a while then having too little food for some time, the metabolism drops and much fat is created during the weeks of plenty.  A problem is impulsive shopping and impulsive eating when assistance is renewed, or when a paycheck comes in, instead of thoughtful planning and rationing.

The article does point out that "Lower-income families don't subsist on junk food and fast food because they lack nutritional education.... Lower-income families choose sugary, fat, and processed foods because they're cheaper -- and because they taste good."  This is key.  Education is not the problem.  The problem is that the kind of person who is likely to be poor (impulsive, poor planning, poor insight) is also the kind of person who insists on buying unhealthy food.  Cost is a red herring.  I prove constantly that a SNAP budget is adequate for healthy eating.  When SNAP recipients are given the opportunity to buy discounted healthy food, they do not buy more than they usually do, but instead use any savings to buy more unhealthy food.  They don't want more healthy food.  People Like Us showed that whole grain bread could not be given away in a poor neighborhood.  There is not enough demand, and that is why there are so few stores in poor neighborhoods that sell good food.

The author follows a single mother SNAP recipient and her two kids and their eating habits.  The mother spends $100/week on food, which is less than the maximum SNAP allotment for a family of three, so I'm guessing that the mother makes more money than the poverty line.  $100/week for three people is not great, but it's doable to get healthy food.  A super healthy breakfast can be made in two minutes for less than $1, but instead the mom takes the kids to a bodega each morning to buy processed foods and soda at many times the price.  The mom only recently stopped getting doughnuts and lattes at Dunkin' Donuts because of the calories, totally oblivious to her massive daily waste of precious money.  Several nights each week she gets fast food takeout for dinner.  She makes homecooked meals on the weekend when she has more time and energy, but the article doesn't explain why she doesn't make enough to last the whole week.

The authors (Ian Yarett and Jesse Ellison) only skim the issue of a soda tax, though they present a snippet of each extreme side of the argument.  I am absolutely in favor of massive taxes on soda and other "foods" that directly contribute to health problems.  I am also in favor of prohibiting SNAP funds from being used to buy them.  It is appallingly stupid to use tax money to help people develop health conditions that more tax money will have to go towards treating.  Let's instead sensibly tax the harmful actions, and use the revenue to treat the damage they cause, at least.  Nudge people away from harmful decisions, prevent harmful corporate manipulation of people, and behave efficiently with our money in ways that actually serve the American people.

If we have a more self-aware, patient, and thoughtful population, we will have fewer issues with poverty, obesity, violence, and nearly any other problem. The real sources of the problems we have here are the materialist and capitalist drives for immediate gratification of desires, insensitivity to our own internal states, and the lack of conscious monitoring of the ramifications of our actions.