At the end of last year, when he was running for President, Rick Santorum told an Iowa audience that he would drastically reduce federal spending on food stamps.
Santorum asked, “If hunger is a problem in America, then why do we have an obesity problem among the people who we say have a hunger problem?”
Perhaps Santorum is still living in the Middle Ages, when fat bellies were a sign of wealth and plenty. In fact, given his views on sexual morality and gender roles, it’s likely Santorum actually is stuck in a time warp.
But in today’s reality, those obese and impoverished Americans Santorum is referring to aren’t living the high life, like rotund royalty of the past. They’re actually dying a slow, and ultimately miserable death, courtesy of our nation’s corporate food system.
Death by food is a hot topic in the news media whenever there’s a recall of e-coli contaminated spinach or salmonella infested chicken. Foodborne illnesses kill about 3,000 Americans every year and sicken another 48 million Americans. “We the people” have decided our food supply is a part of the commons, and thus created agencies like the USDA to monitor the safety of our food. But that's "fast death" by contaminated food, which is why it receives so much attention.
On the other hand, "slow death" by unhealthy food receives far less attention. We hear news stories about soaring obesity, diabetes, and heart disease rates, yet rarely make the connection back to major flaws in our national food system.
Some local lawmakers, however, have made these connections.
Led by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg - who banned the sale of large, high-fructose sugary beverages and restricted the use of trans-fats in his city’s restaurants - lawmakers in California, Arkansas, and Virginia have also taken steps to curb the consumption of unhealthy food, doing everything from placing “sin taxes” on sugary sodas to banning toys in fast food restaurant kid’s meals. But most of these measures have been ridiculed by the political Right, amid charges that the “nanny state” has gone too far – a sign that Americans still don’t understand the urgency of reforming a food system that is slowly killing us all.
The issue is not whether Americans have access to enough food to eat. With a McDonalds and Taco Bell on nearly every street corner in Anytown, USA, there is no shortage of consumable fast food. The issue, however, is whether or not Americans have access to enough quality food like fresh fruits and vegetables to eat – the sort of food that, when digested in high volumes, won’t slowly kill us.
A lot of research has been done on “food deserts,” defined as urban or rural areas around the nation that don’t have any access to grocery stores. As a result, people living in these areas can't easily get the affordable fresh foods necessary for a healthy diet. The USDA has compiled a map showing huge swaths of food deserts all around the nation, from coast-to-coast and North-to-South. It’s estimated that more than 23 million Americans, including more than 6 million children, live in food deserts. Virtually all of them are forced to rely on fast food and convenience stores for their daily food.
And most of these food deserts exist in low-income communities. Some of the worst food deserts are in impoverished areas of New Orleans, Chicago, Atlanta, and Memphis. Speaking directly to Rick Santorum’s point, a study out of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine found that the highest rates of obesity are found in food deserts, and the lowest rates of obesity are found in communities with nearby supermarkets. In other words, disease-inducing obesity is up wherever healthy food is scarce.
But “food deserts” are only one consequence of our deadly food system. Monopoly is the other.
The vast majority of what we eat, and where we buy what we eat, is controlled by just a handful of gigantic corporations that are far more interested in turning profits by leading droves of American consumers to the genetically-modified feeding troughs. These are filled with fatty, sugary filler foods than they are in providing a healthy and natural diet, which may be less profitable. “Pink Slime” is one example of these agribusinesses trying to squeeze whatever pennies they can out of a dead cow.
As Tom Philpott points out in Mother Jones: “Just four companies—Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, and Louis Dreyfus—control up to 90 percent of the global trade in grain. In the United States, three of those firms process 70 percent of the soybeans and 40 percent of the wheat milled into flour. The bulk of corn and soy grown by US farmers ends up feeding animals in vast factories, and here, too, the consolidation is dramatic: Three companies now process more than 70 percent of all beef, and just four firms slaughter and pack upwards of 58 percent of all pork and chicken.”
Philpott points out the grocery store monopoly, too. Walmart alone controls a quarter of the U.S. grocery market. And when you add in the three other largest grocery retailers, together they control 40% of the entire national grocery market. And the USDA reports that only four companies produced 75% of our breakfast cereal, 75% of snack foods, 60% of cookies, and half of all the ice cream in grocery stores.
Together, these monopolistic corporations that are growing the majority of our food, producing that food, and then selling that food are feeding us junk for profit.
Incentivized by government-backed corn subsidies, major agribusinesses found huge profits in producing as much corn as they could. So that’s what they did, and within a few years practically everything we Americans ate contained some sort of corn filler – most notoriously high fructose corn syrup. Prior to the 1970’s, Americans didn’t eat any high fructose corn syrup. But by 1999, each American was consuming on average 45-pounds of high fructose corn syrup every single year, which is known to be extremely unhealthy.
In addition to feeding us horrific levels of high fructose corn syrup, these monopolistic agribusinesses, in their relentless pursuit of profits, have embraced genetically-modified horrors. While GMOs are responsible for higher yields, bigger fruits and vegetables, and pesticide and bug resistant crops, they may also be responsible for diseases. Extensive testing on lab animals has raised concerns that GMOs increase allergies, lead to reproductive problems, and may cause cancers, as well as numerous other antibiotic resistance diseases.
Roughly 85% of the corn grown in American is genetically modified. As is 91% of soybeans and 88% of cotton. And upwards of 70% of all the food in our grocery stores comes from GMOs, further increasing the toxicity of our national food system.
So when will Americans wake up?
Well, we’ve all woken up before. One of our most famous awakenings was after Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle in 1906, exposing the disease-ridden, corrupt American meat-packing industry. Outrage swept the nation and eventually public pressure led to federal laws being passed like the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act, which eventually led to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration.
These combined efforts helped slow the fast death of Americans consuming diseased foods.
But today we need similar outrage and federal action to halt the slow death of Americans being force-fed unhealthy, genetically modified fast foods.
It's time for fundamental changes to our nation’s toxic food system.