Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Is Taxing 'Bad Food' Really the Answer - I think Not

In his July 23rd New York Times op-ed piece, Bad Food? Tax It, and Subsidize Vegetables, Mark Bittman asked, "What will it take to get Americans to change our eating habits?"  He goes on to present a well-thought-out idea, as the title suggests: to tax "bad food" (in my vernacular, "crap") and  make "good food" more available.  I understand where he's coming from and appreciate his opinion, except for one fatal error: people's taste for the food they know and like will not change no matter how much it costs.  Taxation of any foodstuffs will in no way alter what people want to put in their mouths or change their eating or buying habits.  I'm not here to argue the fact that healthy options need to be made more available—they do—but taxation of "offending foods" won't teach people how to cook kale or know what to do with the new healthy ingredients with which they may be unfamiliar.  

I see Mr. Bittman's point when he talks about taxation of "offending foods" making a difference in the cost of health care while we are cleaning up the mess that's been created by the convenience food epidemic.  However, we really need to focus our attention starting from a cultural standpoint.  Americans have been acculturated to accept fast food and not as at least equal to that which was prepared at home.  We need to turn back those wheels.  as a community we need to understand and accept ideas about food which have been lost at the bottom of a bag of chips. 

If we truly want to change American food culture we must address it directly, meaning that we need to change how the collective “We” perceive food and where it belongs in our lives.  When I look at the food cultures of France and Germany (I'll use these examples because that's what I know best) there are certain innate rules about eating (such as where, when, what, and how much), which are inarguable and basic qualities that foods must possess.  There’s also a reverence for the act of cooking and eating that we in the U.S. have lost over the past sixty years.  They seem to be closer to their food sources and seem to want to know where their food comes from more than we in the U.S. do.  They tend to eat seasonally, and won't accept food that tastes like cardboard.

Furthermore, there are no taboo ingredients in the cuisines of these cultures, just taboo eating habits.  People often make comments like, "How do the French stay so skinny when they eat all of that cream and butter?!"  It's because they have small amounts of it within a balanced diet.  They understand that if you eat the real thing, you'll be more satisfied than if you eat a poor substitute.  People take their time to eat and actually (GASP) sit down to eat; they rarely drink out of paper cups, and They realize that if you take your time to eat, your body can properly digest.  (The chemicals that tell our brains that we are full take time to kick in.)  Eat too fast and you'll just keep eating.  (The added benefit of slowing down being we give ourselves time to breathe and relax, lowering stress levels.)

Other innate rules that dominate their food cultures:

- Make feeding yourself and your family The priority, instead of all of the activities that occupy our time;
- When we sit together for a meal our families, friendships, and ultimately our communities, are strengthened.

These are fundamental ideas which, if we can acculturate ourselves to them, will be the basis of true cultural change.

After reading all of this you may be asking, "Well then smarty pants?  What do you suggest?"  I'm glad you asked.  Thank you.

Where do we start with this?  In our churches, community centers, schools, and other community gathering places.

How do we do it?  Education.  Education.  Education.  If government wants to get involved, let's have basic nutrition be a part of science classes starting in junior high, and a full nutrition class be required by at least grade ten. (I hate to say it but there will be dropouts, and they need to learn this too).  In my experience, I was always more interested in learning about things that directly affected my body than about plants.  Nutrition is rather basic science.  Let's make this part of our basic curriculum.

We can also start cooking classes and shopping lessons designed to fit within the communities where they will be taught.  We should have more programs like Common Threads that "teach low-income children to cook wholesome and affordable meals...".  

What is the first step?  People, like myself, need to start in their own community.  Follow the lead of the folks at Common Threads, or become a part of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution.  Let's work together to figure out what's needed in our own communities and fill in the blanks.  Let's work with local chefs, farmers, and teachers, and start showing people how easy it is to make a simple meal and how it can be cheaper and more satisfying than any McDinner they can buy.

PLEASE NOTE:  I think it's very important not to demonize the foods that people like.  We will lose their attention and the battle will not have even begun before it's over.  What we need to do is to move those foods out of the forefront of our collective diets and make them a Sunday treat, or a Friday night movie night dinner.  Yes, we should give people the information about WHAT they are eating, but ultimately they have to choose for themselves what they want to consume.  No one can decide for them.

We need to learn moderation.  Doughnuts are only offensive to our Greater National Health if they are a staple in our diets and not consumed as an occasional treat as they should be.  Butter and cream aren't bad for you if you only eat them in small quantities; i.e., Fettucini Alfredo isn't meant to be served in a three-pound portion.

This is just the beginning of a very long, challenging, and precarious road.  I see so many good things happening on a community level, such as Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution and Common Threads.  I just hope to be one more voice, one more source of information and inspiration.  I’m not a doctor nor am I a politician, but I am a mom who cares about our kids and our community.

Mr. Bittman, keep fighting the good fight.  I appreciate what you do, but on this one… I wholeheartedly disagree.

1 comment:

Heidi Kenyon said...

Getting started making changes is challenging for people, but we need to remember to take baby steps: just do things one day at a time. Little choices can add up to big change.

Go, girl.