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This diary is, in a way, a reflection on the entire VMD diary series so far. One of the very first diaries in the series was about obesity and - even though I look back on it now as naive - it got over 600 comments. It's a topic we care about A LOT.

And no wonder! The national percentage of obese people is 32%. That's an astronomically high figure compared with stats from five, ten, or twenty years ago. It's unprecedented. Our obesity as a nation is perhaps the most universal, obvious manifestation of our suffering food system.

Obesity is hardly our only problem. The root problem is, according to Frances Moore Lappe, a lack of democracy. Not such a surprise, in a country that recently revoked the Magna Carta.

The list of shame is below the flip. Drumroll please...

The Cold Hard Truth
The Forbes article I used for this diary only ranked the 50 most populous cities in America. Of the 50 cities ranked, Boston came in last (or first?) with "only" 19% obese. As you'll note, all but the #1 fattest city here, Memphis, actually fall below the national obesity average.

The reason? Small towns across the country with epic obesity - in some cases as high as 45%! In other words, if you live in one of the so-called fattest cities, you are actually LESS likely to be obese than someone living in a smaller city. (That makes me feel a lot better about living in #10 San Diego... but not much better about the 20 lbs I gained this year!)

One last note before I give you the rankings... obesity is defined as a BMI (body mass index) > 30. For example, at 5'3", I would be obese if I weighed 169 lbs or more. A person who is 6'0" would be obese if he or she weight over 221 lbs. The one-size-fits-all definition of obese isn't perfect (consider a body builder or a pregnant woman), but it still gives you an idea of obesity trends in the general population.

Of the nation's 50 most populous cities, the 20 fattest were...

RankCity2005 % Obese2006 % Obese
3San Antonio31.1%
4Riverside/San Bernardino, CA~25.8%30.8%
6Jacksonville, FL29.8%
8Oklahoma City27.5%
9Kansas City, MO26.9%
10San Diego26.7%
13New Orleans25.8%
13Virginia Beach25.8%
19Las Vegas21%24.9%

The price tag of our obesity, in medical costs alone, is $93 million per year. That doesn't include things like extra gas needed to haul our fat selves around. Also, look at the jump in numbers in some of these places. What happened? Did a wild pack of sumo wrestlers invade Austin?

Austin isn't alone either. Here are a few obesity maps from the CDC:

According to the CDC:

among adults aged 20–74 years the prevalence of obesity increased from 15.0% (in the 1976–1980 survey) to 32.9% (in the 2003–2004 survey).

Perhaps we should also recognize the concentration of carcinogenic pesticides in breast milk or the greenhouse gas emissions from driving all of our food an average of 1500 miles from farm to table, but we don't have to sit next to those statistics on airplanes!

What the Hell Happened?
I'm not the first to speculate on this, and I obviously can't give a complete answer in a diary. For that, I recommend two books - Diet for a Dead Planet by Christopher Cook and Fat Land by Greg Critser. However, I can give you a brief idea.

The Cycle of "Get Big or Get Out": The trend of farm consolidation continually leaves us with less farmers, larger farms, less diversification, and less sustainability. This cycle has gone on for at least the last hundred years and it's not over yet.

It goes something like this: Prices rise, so farmers try to expand to take advantage of them. They invest in more land and more technology. Soon, supply is through the roof and prices drop. The farmers who are still paying for their new tractors or land or whatever can't pay the bills.

The value of farmland (which was high when prices were high) has dropped so these farmers can't even pay off their debts by selling land. Those who can keep their head above water buy up the cheap farmland and get bigger. Those who can't lose their farms.

A small farm isn't less efficient or less productive than an enormous farm. In fact, they can often increase productivity in ways large farms can't - for example, by planting crops in between rows of other crops. A diversified small farm can feed waste from their crops to their animals and vice versa. By doing so, they require less of the chemical inputs that a large, industrialized farm relies on.

(By the way, if you think farmers should wise up to this trend and don't deserve to be bailed out, I've got two responses. First, in the early 1970's, the government told farmers to "plant fencerow to fencerow" and to invest in new equipment. So it's not always the fault of the "stupid farmers" unless you blame them for believing Republicans.

Second, if we decide to punish farmers by letting the chips fall where they may, we'll hurt ourselves too because we'll be the ones who end up with all of the negative consequences of enormous, industrialized farms.)

Vertical Integration: Enormous companies now control the entire food chain, from beginning to end. This anti-competitive strategy allows them to keep prices low and profits high.

If a pork processor had to compete with other pork processing companies to buy pigs from many different farmers, the farmers might get a fair price. At a minimum, prices would fluctuate based on the laws of supply and demand.

To guarantee low prices, pork processors like Smithfield eliminate competition via mergers so farmers often have only one entity to sell their pigs to - Smithfield, or nobody. Unless they want to drive far out of state to find another pork processor.

Furthermore, processing companies will keep "captive supplies" (a supply of animals they own), allowing them to bypass buying from individual farmers if prices go up, thus forcing prices down once again.

Farmers, held in such tight control by these circumstances, have very little room to profit (or even break even) unless they keep their costs as low as possible and spread out their overhead among many animals. These market conditions lead to more factory farms, more pollution, and less sustainability.

Rock Bottom Commodity Prices: This one's (in large part) the doing of Nixon's Ag Secretary, Earl Butz. Prior to him, the government structured subsidies as a supply management system. When farmers couldn't sell their crop above a specific price (the loan rate), the farmer bought back his or her crop and sold it. If not, the farmer just kept the loan money and the government kept the crop off the market (for example, by giving it away as foreign aid).

The post-Earl-Butz structure sets a target price (a very low one, because of course Republicans don't want to make anyone dependent on handouts) and reimburses farmers when the price they receive falls below that target price.

This has two major repercussions: First, it encourages overproduction because (unless prices rise above the target price) all farmers will only receive the low target price for their crops and they must make up for the low profit margin in volume to stay solvent. Second, it ensures commodity prices (usually) free fall down to insanely low levels, giving an implicit subsidy to anyone who buys them.

Of course, buyers of commodities are makers of junk food! Factory farms and food manufacturers who use corn & soy byproducts as ingredients (high fructosed corn syrup, hydrogenated soybean oil, etc), plus those who sell the end products to consumers.

Don't forget that obesity is not the only issue at stake - just the most visible ones. This same bunch is also guilty of wasteful energy and water usage, pollution, poor treatment of their workforce, etc.

Tighter School Budgets: The I-Hate-Taxes crowd successfully cut school funding in many places across the country a few decades back, leading to school overcrowding. To avoid skimping on reading, writing, and arithmetic, schools cut out the less necessary areas instead: kitchens, P.E. classes, etc.

They also dealt with overcrowding by shortening lunch periods so they could rotate more kids through the cafeteria throughout the day. Once time and space became so crunched, fast food restaurants offering to deliver school lunches looked like saviors.

I'm pulling these two anecdotes from my memory so please check me on them (I read them in Fat Land) but in one case a school asked Pizza Hut to serve the school kids pizza that met the USDA nutritional standards and Pizza Hut refused because they do not want their brand put at risk by children who try the healthier version of their pizza and dislike it.

In another case, an experiment served children USDA-formulated pizza in brand name fast food containers and the kids responded that they liked this better than the very same pizza in generic wrappers.

Another consequence of tight school budgets is "pouring rights." Pouring rights means that a school contracts with a certain soft drink brand, promising to only serve that brand in their schools. I remember when my own high school did this in the late 1990's.

In return for signing the contract, the school receives incentives, including prizes for selling more soda to their students. The big soda companies also sell water, sports drinks, and juice, so the kids don't necessarily only guzzle down Coke as a result of these contracts... but how many of those products are little more than sugar water either?

(The water's another issue, since it doesn't add to waistlines, but bottled water sells a free product for high prices while wasting gas to transport it and plastic to package it. Unfortunately, some schools don't have drinking fountains due to lead issues, and in those areas the bottled water's a necessary evil.)

The Gutting of the Middle Class: Obesity is linked to socio-economic class. The richer you are, the more you can afford a trip to Whole Foods, nice cooking equipment, or a gym membership. Besides, if you only have to work one job (instead of two or three) you might actually have time to think about what you put in your body.

It follows then that obesity will continue to rise in our population as more people fall out of the middle class. Thanks, George Bush!

Non-Food Obesity Contributors: The factors below aren't issues with our food system, but they are still worth mentioning because they have played a role in the specific issue of obesity.

Many parents have spoken up on dKos, mentioning a lack of sidewalks where they live, or concern over the safety of allowing their children to play outside. At least one person said that people moved in and out of their neighborhood so quickly that nobody knew each other; if that weren't the case, perhaps neighbors might keep an eye on one another's kids. Someone else mentioned that the only nearby place kids could play for free on days with bad weather was McDonalds.

When kids (or grown-ups) can't exercise outside, suddenly exercise becomes a privilege of the rich. If you've got cash, you can sign your kid up for soccer, or buy a gym membership. Not surprisingly, lower-income Americans have higher rates of obesity.

As you've seen here, while obesity may be the most visible food-related problem we're facing, the same corporations, laws, technologies, etc, that make us fat also pollute the air, water, and soil and waste energy. What I didn't even bring up here are the undocumented workers used in slaughterhouses, the poor safety standards in those slaughterhouses, and the documented social problems associated with enormous, industrialized farms (as opposed to small farms).

I've been attempting (with the help of many others) to document a comprehensive solution on the Recipe for America website. It's not 100% done yet but it's enough to give an idea of what should be done.

The Senate version of the 2007 farm bill offers hope for many solutions, such as banning captive supplies of livestock or allowing schools to state geographic preferences when buying cafeteria food, but the bill is stalled because the Republicans are filibustering it.

Even with the farm bill stalled, you can take action by voting with your fork. Every time you check out a farmers' market, sign up for a CSA, eat a meal free of factory-farmed meat (that is, most meat, unless you specifically know where it came from), or even cook yourself a healthy dinner at home, you're voting for the progressive solution!

Originally posted to OrangeClouds115 on Sun Dec 02, 2007 at 11:34 AM PST.

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