Children, Cheeseburgers, and America: It's Time to Vote for Health
By Neal Barnard, M.D.
This opinion piece was published Nov. 13, 2007, in the St. Paul Pioneer-Press, the Tampa Tribune, and the Charlotte Observer.
Last month, the American Institute for Cancer Research unveiled the most detailed report ever produced on how healthy diets can prevent cancer.
This month, the Senate will ignore every word of it.
In the next few days, lawmakers will likely vote on the farm bill, a complex piece of legislation that greatly affects public health. At issue are ever-increasing rates of childhood obesity. Sixteen percent of elementary schoolchildren are overweight. And it only gets worse as kids reach high school and adulthood. Along with those extra pounds comes diabetes—eventually striking one in three people born since 2000—as well as hypertension and a higher risk for several types of cancer.
A boy growing up today has a 50-50 chance of developing cancer at some point in his life. A girl's odds are one in three. Smoking is no longer the main contributor. Instead, fatty meats and cheeses, carcinogens on grilled chicken and the shocking lack of vegetables, fruits, beans, whole grains and vegetarian foods on the American plate all spell cancer risk. Small wonder the United States ranks 38th in life expectancy, behind Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Chile. But America is No. 1 when it comes to cheese consumption, now averaging 32 pounds per person every year.
American doctors provide the best medical care in the world. And American dietitians have the greatest nutrition knowledge. But they cannot keep up with our fast-food and junk-food-laden diets. American business cannot keep up, either. The price of every car that rolls off a Detroit assembly line—and every other commercial product, too—is inflated by the health care costs that come from being among the fattest, sickest populations on the globe.
A big part of the blame goes to Congress. When beef prices fall, the government buys up millions of dollars worth of beef in order to remove surpluses and stabilize agribusiness income. When cheese prices slip, the government buys up millions of dollars worth of cheese. These products are then shipped to schools, where America's ever-pudgier children are the willing victims of cheeseburgers, sausage pizza and Salisbury steak with gravy.
Schools find it impossible to say no to products that are essentially free. And the USDA officials who buy up these less-than-healthful products have little choice, because federal law mandates these purchases.
So who does have a choice? Our senators do.
When they decide on the farm bill, senators have two choices. They can vote to keep America fat, sick and uncompetitive. Or they can vote to stop livestock-feed subsidies that keep bacon and cheeseburgers cheap and vote to stop dumping high-fat, high-cholesterol foods on schools.
Senators will need courage. Up until now, nearly all members of Congress have accepted money from political action committees set up by meat producers. Tyson, the largest meat producer in the world, has a PAC. So do Hormel, Smithfield and other agribusiness giants. All told, agribusiness contributed $44 million to federal campaigns in the last election cycle. Their investment pays off handsomely. Each of these companies scored enormous government commodity contracts. And while these contracts were designed to boost farm income, each of these companies was already wealthy. While parents see the worried look on their pediatricians' faces, agribusiness executives laugh all the way to the bank.
Enough is enough. The farm bill was set up in a day when farmers needed help getting through tough times, and when Americans knew what beans and vegetables were. If the Senate fails to vote for reform, we will have lost our best chance to give our children a healthy future.
Dr. Neal Barnard is a nutrition researcher and president of the nonprofit Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. He grew up in Fargo, N.D., and has relatives in the cattle business.