Monday, February 4, 2008

The Seduction of Happy Meals

Worst of all is the rampant childhood obesity that comes from feeding our children an unhealthy diet of high-fat, high-sugar, fast food garbage. Many people questioned the validity of a class-action lawsuit filed against McDonald's in 2002 by New York teenagers Jazlyn Bradley, then nineteen, and Ashley Pelman, then fourteen, who claimed that the food giant's food made them obese and suffer from heart

disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Couldn't these children have just refused to eat so much fast food? But looking more closely at the lawsuit, we find remarkable similarities to the tobacco industry lawsuits. These teenagers claim that it was the unhealthy content of the food, not the amount of food eaten, that put them at risk for serious health problems. Although the teenagers' case was originally dismissed in February 2003, it was reinstated in January of 2005 and has yet to be determined.

Their case may have a greater chance of success because of the message of an extraordinary documentary film, Super Size Me, which charts the health of filmmaker Morgan Spur- lock, who, for one month, lived on nothing but McDonald's food. He followed three simple rules: 1) He could only eat what was available over the counter; 2) He could only super- size when he was offered; 3) He had to eat every item on the menu at least once. Although he started off with a clean bill of health after medical checkups with three different doctors, by the end of the movie he had gained twenty-five pounds, was suffering from chronic headaches and nausea, his moods were swinging back and forth between lethargic depression and manic overdrive, and his liver and heart became so impaired that his doctor was begging him to give up the experiment even before the end.

Diet Start

Monica Ferreria, a Roots & Shoots coordinator who works with young people in Salt Lake City, recently spoke with me about one area that is often overlooked: the improper nutrition of the struggling poor in the United States. Yes, they do have food, she explained, but they are being poisoned by the quality of food. She told me about stores where everything is a dollar. These stores are very popular with young mothers who have small children and not very many resources. The food is cheap, but it has horrible nutritional value. And Monica said, "Everyone loves Twinkies and potato chips—the marketing of these products to children is unethical. It is an interesting dilemma, when the poor are not starving from lack of food, per se, but from too much of the wrong food."

Exactly so. Indeed, it becomes increasingly clear that the giant corporations behind the fast foods and junk foods, which are inundating the market around the globe, are motivated by making profit rather than providing nourishment. So it is up to us—the consumers—to bring their unethical business practices to an end.

With so many people suffering from diet-related illnesses, consumers are beginning to realize that the fast food industry should be held accountable for its global agenda to produce cheap, low-quality, high-calorie food for profit regardless of the harm it causes. Our children are especially at risk because of the quality of school meals, and the shocking capitulation to corporations such as McDonald's who are now providing the meals, and have demanded, as recompense for "good" deals, the right to install vending machines for their products. Indeed, there are schools that encourage their students to work for the good of the school by collecting soda caps. Schools with good scores are rewarded with substantial cash prizes. In addition, the fast food chains specifically target their advertising toward children who are seduced by Happy Meals and packages with free toys, games, collecting cards inside, and who eventually come to prefer the excessive sweetness.


Corn is the most prevalent crop grown in the United States—some 78 million acres of farmland have been planted in recent years. And no USDA subsidy program sends taxpayer money to more recipients. Between 1995 and 2003, just under 1.5 million individual farmers, partnerships, corporations, estates, and other entities received at least one corn subsidy payment. Michael Pollan, the author of The Botany of Desire, believes that the U.S. subsidizing of corn crops is one of its most harmful agricultural practices. It has caused enormous damage to the environment as industrial corn farmers heavily rely on agrochemicals. And it is directly linked to the rising levels of obesity throughout the U.S.

In fact, the national problems with obesity can be traced back to the 1970s when the government began subsidizing farmers who grew corn. Cheap industrial corn meant cheaper, high-calorie food. Some of that corn got turned into animal feed, fattening factory farm cattle and lowering the cost of beef, contributing to the excessive amounts we consume today. Unless you buy organic free-range animal products, almost all your eggs, dairy, and meat was raised on subsidized corn. It's also worth noting that corn-fed animal products are much higher in saturated fats—and our increased intake of saturated fats is directly linked to rising obesity.

"Fattening" and "fats" are key words here, as we talk about all this cheap, excess corn. One of the most common corn products is high-fructose corn syrup, which now accounts for 20 percent of the daily calorie intake of many children. Government-subsidized corn syrup is the main reason soft drink and fast food companies make such a huge profit. In the early 1970s the average soda container was a slender eight-ounce bottle; nowadays it's more likely to be a twenty-ounce tub. From bottles of ketchup to children's breakfast cereal, at least one quarter of all processed foods in the grocery stores contain high-fructose corn syrup.

As the government issues stern warnings about rising obesity it continues to support an agricultural policy that makes some of the emptiest and most fattening calories the cheapest and most readily available.

... andjoyohoxing