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Obesity

This is the latest in a series of posts I’m writing for Flavor Magazine’s blog examining the intersection of food, politics, and policy.

Bookstores don’t usually have a “Food” section. Most stores reserve a good deal of shelf space for cookbooks, and, perhaps nearby, there are sections dedicated to books about gardening and nutrition. Farther away, one might find a cluster of more rigorous works analyzing American food culture and the downfall thereof, probably by Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, or their disciples.

Despite its title, Michelle Obama’s new book, American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America, doesn’t fit neatly into any of the standard categories. That’s because it touches on nearly all of them.

Released on Tuesday, the First Lady’s book is many things–it’s a reflection on Mrs. Obama’s early relationship with food and gardening; it’s a brief overview of the history of gardening at the White House; and, as the title suggests, it tells the story of the current White House “kitchen garden” that Mrs. Obama started after her husband was elected President.

Like the White House garden before it, the book’s stated goal is to encourage “a conversation about the food we eat, the lives we lead, and how that affects our children.” That objective underlies much of Mrs. Obama’s work in her three-and-a-half years as First Lady, represented most publicly by her signature Let’s Move! initiative to combat childhood obesity by promoting healthy eating habits and exercise.

More than anything, American Grown is a message piece–a publication designed to reduce Mrs. Obama’s work on healthy living into a series of easily digestible concepts and goals, and to provide a platform she can use as she hits the campaign trail over the next five months on behalf of her husband’s reelection campaign.

On that count, so far so good: since the book’s release on Tuesday, she’s already made appearances on Good Morning America, NPR’s Morning Edition, The View, and The Daily Show, and nearly every major media outlet has run a piece about the book.

In some respects, the motivation behind this book and even its specific content are irrelevant. It’s a book about the benefits of a food culture rooted in fresh, healthy, local foods written by a woman with cross-culture appeal and enormous reach, and that, in itself, is a good thing.

It’s also hard to blame politicians for being political–in fact, Mrs. Obama’s team deserves to be commended for crafting a book that contains useful information presented in an appealing way (it unfolds against the backdrop of a seasonal motif, and features beautiful photographs, illustrations, and diagrams throughout), while remaining true to their political objectives and/or limitations.

Still, if the goal of this project is to help change Americans’ eating habits, I wonder whether the First Lady missed an opportunity by putting out an advertisement for her healthy lifestyle initiative rather than something that might have a greater impact on the way people interact with food on a daily basis–namely, a cookbook.

While American Grown does include about 20 recipes, they’re almost an appendix to the rest of the content, and the book only briefly touches on ways people can turn fresh and seasonal produce into meals–the kind of knowledge that might help people overcome the convenience barrier that persistently keeps them from actually eating the low-cost, healthy food that’s available to a vast majority of Americans.

It can’t hurt that cookbooks are enormously popular, even as sales of other categories of books are on the decline. Add in a popular, high-profile author like, say, the First Lady of the United States, and it seems to me you have a winning formula for selling books–or, in this case, altering eating trends.

Instead, we’re left to cross our fingers and hope that Mrs. Obama can use her stature to at least get more people talking about the issue, and or even to take a crack at the recipe for corn soup with summer vegetables near the back of the book.

Maybe the success of this book will get Mrs. Obama thinking about the possibility of another book–one that belongs under “Cookbooks” rather than “Politics”–sometime during her husband’s second term. I’d vote for that.

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This is the latest in a series of posts I’m writing for Flavor Magazine’s blog examining the intersection of food, politics, and policy.

We’ve got a big problem. Even bigger than the overuse of weight-related puns when talking about the American obesity epidemic.

This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention held its second annual “Weight of the Nation” conference — a gathering of political leaders, health professionals, and concerned citizens intended to highlight and discuss progress in the effort to address the public health crisis presented by the United States’ alarmingly high obesity rates.

The conference coincided with a deluge of new obesity-related fodder, including an upcoming HBO documentary and the release of two reports — one by the Institute of Medicine (the health arm of the quasi-governmental National Academy of Sciences) and one published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine — that include the latest set of statistics on the growing obesity problem, analyses of its implications for Americans’ health and our nation’s economy, and strategies for combating it.

Both reports articulate the same basic state of play: currently, approximately two-thirds of U.S. adults, and one-third of children, are overweight or obese. The human and economic costs of obesity-related illness and death are enormous; obese individuals are far more likely to live shorter lives and suffer severe health problems, including heart disease and diabetes, increasing national medical costs by hundreds of billions of dollars every year. And the problem is getting worse—the AJPM report estimates that, by 2030, 42% of the population will be obese.

According to that report’s authors, part of the reason obesity rates are so much higher than they were 50 years ago is that high-calorie foods are far more abundant and cheap than they used to be, making it much easier for someone to gain weight while eating the same “amount” of food. On top of that, our food culture increasingly extols a super-sized, all-you-can-eat mentality, mitigated only erratically by the latest fad diet.

So what can we do to reverse the trend toward a heavier, unhealthier population? While the complexity of the problem is daunting, almost everybody agrees that encouraging people to eat healthier and exercise are part of the solution. Not surprisingly, the first two “goals” articulated by the IOM report are “Make physical activity a routine and integral part of life,” and “Create food and beverage environments that ensure that healthy food and beverage options are the routine and easy choice.”

But when it comes to figuring out how to achieve those goals, particularly with respect to the food part of the equation, there is no consensus. This is especially true for the policy approaches that public health experts believe have the greatest impact on individuals’ food decisions: taxes, regulations, and other restrictions on high-sugar, high-calorie foods and beverages.

There has been a good deal of teeth-gnashing over the failure of recent efforts to enact some of these approaches–e.g., a federal soda tax, limits on what food stamps can buy, and rules governing how unhealthy foods are marketed to kids–including among supporters of the sustainable food movement, who share the desire to incentivize better food choices (and naturally derive pleasure from anything that sticks it to large food corporations).

In the crossfire between public health advocates (who are often singularly focused on “evidence-based” strategies to reduce obesity, regardless of whether such policies are otherwise desirable) and food companies (whose arguments are tainted by their clear financial interests), we often miss out on the chance to have a level-headed discussion about whether we want a system in which government policies actively prescribe which foods we should eat.

Presumably, most Americans–on both sides of the debate–would like to be able to choose the foods they eat without the government putting its finger on the scale, especially in an environment when our notion of what’s good for us and what isn’t is constantly evolving.

Of course, they’d also like a food system and culture that doesn’t send an inordinate number of people to an early grave, or drag down an already overburdened health care system. Whether we can have both depends on whether a sea change in the way people think about food is truly possible.