The Economics of America’s Obesity Crisis

by Kate Walz

Watch any documentary about food, particularly an American one, and it will preach about how people need to cut back on portion sizes, processed foods and waistlines. But it would neglect to share that they are already cutting back.

The average American diet has begun to include less nutritious and wholesome foods. Not only has there been a decrease in consumption of healthy foods, but the prices of unhealthy foods are generally cheaper and significantly more convenient.

To combat the inevitable obesity of future generations, there have been increasingly more government regulations put in place for what schools can serve. The new guidelines established by Michelle Obama with her Let’s Move campaign advocate for more exercise, smaller portion sizes, and more nutritional meals for American students.

With obesity rates steadily rising to ⅔ of adults in the past few years, Americans are looking for someone to blame. 20 years ago, backed by scientific research, high fat diets were blamed; now high carbohydrate diets seem to be the issue. Fast food companies have been sued countless times. Yet America is still fat. They are still spending more money on surgical weight loss procedures, and less money and time on the nutrients and exercise they really need.

There seems to be a big lie going around. Sugar and lack of physical exercise have not been blamed yet. The USDA doesn’t even offer a recommended daily amount of sugar intake because it is not an essential part of a diet. Left to fend for themselves, an average American consumes about 150-170 pounds of sugar a year. Though sugar takes up the smallest portion of the food pyramid, it is taking up an increasingly prominent portion of daily diets. Most of the sugar in the average diet comes from added sugars, which is essentially in everything processed from bread to yogurt.

Lack of exercise is another issue that no one seems to be tackling. Americans have become more and more sedentary over the years, sitting at computers all day at work and coming home only to flop down once again in front of televisions. Zipping by the fast food drive-thru instead of cooking requires even more sitting time. But exercise does not have to be a Herculean task; studies show 30 minutes of exercise a day is enough for most.

Another trend that no one seems to be taking into account is price. Although there are a few exceptions, the unhealthy, yet convenient, foods tend to cost less. This correlation is manifested by the fact that low income or rural areas of the country usually have higher obesity rates.

Albemarle County is part of this standard called the National School Lunch Program. Other school districts are not under this standard. So while the cafeteria can’t receive money from the community, we get it from the government. Additionally, for each meal that Monticello serves in accordance with Michelle Obama’s standards, they receive 6 cents. However, other districts have to rely on county funding for the school lunch programs, which produces variable results. There have been a significant amount of studies showing how lower income areas tend to have higher obesity rates. Schools and the funding they receive are no exception to this rule.

“When we took the friers out of the schools to make lunches healthier, there was a backlash from how many kids wanted to eat lunch. When we took sodas out of the schools 10 years ago, there was a big difference in the amount of revenue we had for school lunches,” said Steve Van Epp, the Food Service Manager at Monticello

Thus, schools have a tough decision to make. Fresh nutritional food is harder to prepare and often more expensive than prepackaged fries and chips, which students continually choose over the meals prepared on-site. So schools have to decide if they should give students food that they want or foods that they need. Often times, the choice is finalized by what students buy and what brings in the most money.

When cafeterias buy cheaper pre-packaged foods are bought, more money is saved. Yet, when cafeterias prepare more expensive and nutritional food that students tend to avoid, they have less money and are forced into buying the pre-packaged meals. Thus, a vicious cycle begins.

“When I started working, the change was going the opposite direction, from the basics to being more like a fast food restaurant and becoming less labor intensive and more pre-made products,” said Van Epp. “And now the push is to get back to the fundamentals of having more food prepared on site and less of the pre-made products. The other big push has been in the lowering of sugars and fats and seasonings.”

Teaching just reading, writing and arithmetic is not sufficient anymore. By now students should be learning how to make the impossible choice between their wallets, tastebuds, health and wellness. .

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