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The Way America Eats Is Killing Us

What can we do to change our disastrous corporate food culture?

It will shock no one to hear that Americans are remarkably unhealthy eaters. A new  American Diet Report Card (pdf) confirms it: we eat far too much cheese, sugar, starch and red meat. We don't eat enough fruits and vegetables. We consume almost 500 more calories per day than we did in the 1970s.

Our eating habits are poor, but it's not because we're a nation of lazy fools jonesing for our daily Big Mac fix, health be damned. It is because we are far too deferential to the interests of big companies, too invested in a corporate-serving narrative of personal responsibility with no parallel requirement of social responsibility, and too culturally wedded to a food model of quantity over quality.

There are some bright spots in the Report Card: we're eating less beef and sugar. Chicken and yogurt are more popular. And while wildly popular items like pizza, burritos, nachos, quesadillas and pasta may not be universally healthy and are almost all bastardized versions of their original incarnations, they do reflect the wonderful American ability to try out new foods and create a diet that is thoroughly multicultural. Fruit and vegetable consumption is depressingly low, but we've made small affordable healthy adjustments, like eating more chicken instead of beef and drinking less soda. It's certainly no coincidence that these changes are coming after public health leaders, who have been shouting about our disordered eating practices for decades, have finally succeeded in getting attention paid from the highest office in the land, in the form of Michelle Obama's focus on healthy eating and exercise.

The message is getting through, but slowly: the way we're eating is killing us. Something has to change.

Unfortunately, all of the change has fallen on the backs of consumers. In a nation where close to a tenth of the population has diabetes and heart disease is the number-one killer, our food system is a national disgrace and a public health disaster. Yes, many of us could make small choices to eat better, and many of us have indeed adjusted our dietary habits in reaction to increased information about healthy eating and increased access to healthy food. But choosing to eat well isn't an easily available option for many Americans, in large part because of structures implemented by big food companies and their agents in Congress. When a corporate food culture is setting us up to eat large portions or heavily-processed, densely-caloric, low-nutritional food, "personal responsibility" isn't going to cut it.

Large numbers of Americans, particularly those who live in low-income areas, find themselves in  food deserts where there is no decent grocery store or market to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables. Instead, many low-income people really on small corner stores, which are often underwritten by big manufacturers. These mom-and-pop joints aren't exactly rolling in the big bucks, and they often rely on the perks offered by large-scale food manufacturers to put that company's products – usually chips, soda and candy – at the front of the store. Perishable goods like fruits and vegetables are more expensive and come with a greater risk of lost profits, not only might it be more difficult to find a company to ship 12 apples at a time to a small convenience store, but if the apples don't sell in a few days they go bad. Twinkies, on the other hand, last for a disturbingly long time.

Some of the worst foods are also the cheapest, thanks to farm subsidies that artificially depress the price of corn, which is processed into a wide array of products. Even Americans who can physically access grocery stores that carry fresh and healthy food often can't afford it. And with Congressional Republicans trying to  cut $4bn from the Supplemental Assistance Nutrition Program (SNAP, also known as "food stamps") which benefits the poorest Americans, the ability to pay a little more to buy vegetables and brown rice instead of frozen pizza – not to mention the time to prepare a wholesome meal – is simply out of reach for too many of us.

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