[Marxism] Abundance Doesn’t Mean Health

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jan 22 07:38:14 MST 2014

NY Times Op-Ed JAN. 21, 2014
The Opinion Pages|Contributing Op-Ed Writer
Abundance Doesn’t Mean Health
by Mark Bittman

The relatively new notion that around a third or more of the world’s 
population is badly (“mal”) nourished conflates hunger and diet-spawned 
illnesses like diabetes, both of which are preventable.

Both result from a lack of access to quality food, which in turn can 
result from a lack of money. No one with money starves, and the 
obesity-diabetes epidemic afflicts predominantly people on the low end 
of the income scale. With money comes good food, food that creates 
health and not “illth,” to use John Ruskin’s word. With a lack of money 
comes either not enough food or so-called empty calories, calories that 
put on pounds but do not nourish.

This is made very clear in Oxfam’s “Good Enough to Eat” index, a 
snapshot of the state of eating in 125 countries released last week. The 
index attempts to determine the best and worst countries in which to 
eat, by measuring levels of undernourishment and underweight in 
children; asking “do people have enough to eat?”; measuring costs of 
food versus other goods and services, to see whether food is affordable; 
looking at the diversity of people’s diets and the availability of safe 
water; and monitoring diabetes and obesity levels to learn whether the 
diets are healthy.

The results for the United States make a fine case for American 
exceptionalism, though not in the way chauvinists will find pleasing.

We rank first in food affordability; food is cheap compared with other 
things we buy, and prices are relatively stable. We also rank highly 
(4th) in food “quality,” which is measured by (potential) diversity of 
diet, though access to good water is shockingly low (tied for 41st, 
about a third of the way down the list).

Then the hammer falls: When it comes to healthy eating as measured by 
diabetes and obesity rates, we’re 120th: sixth from the bottom, better 
off only than Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Fiji and our unlucky 
neighbor Mexico. (Canada fares a little better; it’s 18th worst.) We’re 
also in a tie (with Belarus and other powerhouses) for 35th in “enough 
to eat.” Really.

In fact, it’s hard to imagine having a food supply as abundant as ours 
and doing a worse job with it. There are reasons for this:

• Much of what’s grown with the potential to become “food” is actually 
turned into (as Michael Pollan dubbed them) edible foodlike substances — 
in short, junk food — that produces the opposite of health. (About this 
there can barely be an argument any longer.) Some of what we grow is 
also turned into fuel for automobiles, doing no one but corn farmers any 
good. And much of it is fed to animals, in itself not a terrible thing, 
although the way we do it is damaging on many fronts.

• While we generally manage to keep the neediest quarter of our 
population from actually starving, we do not reach everyone who could 
use help; for example, only half of those Californians eligible for food 
stamps (officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance 
Program) actually get them, according to Roots of Change, a California 
nonprofit that focuses on food. And, of course, food stamps can be and 
often are used to buy junk, a pattern that causes as many problems as it 

• The budget for food education in the United States pales compared with 
the marketing budget for junk food, and much of that education is either 
unconvincing or ignored in the face of the barrage of “fun to eat” ads 
for the food that is worst for us. (These three charts, gathered in one 
place by Tom Philpott, pretty much tell the story.) There is, as I’ve 
complained before, no concerted effort to teach people how to cook, 
which cannot happen without simultaneously teaching people how to shop 
for real food.

There are also issues of economic justice and education, and all their 
complications, which is why talking about food and eating inevitably 
leads to talking about the structure of society.

Part of the problem lies in oversight. Although we have a first lady who 
cares about these issues (and presumably has the support of the 
president), we do not have an official government policy or agency 
responsible for coordinating and assuring that the nation’s investment 
in food and agriculture is for a nourishing and healthful food supply. 
The Department of Agriculture partly fills that role, but it also has a 
clear conflict of interest, since its primary goal is to support what 
has become a system of industrial agriculture that cares more about 
production and marketing supports than about what happens to soil, water 
and air, or the health of consumers who buy its products. (One need look 
only at budgets to determine what any individual or agency cares about 

In the long run, what’s needed is not a Farm Bill — that tangled mess 
that’s been stalled in Congress since its expiration in 2012 — but a 
national food and health policy, one that sets goals first for healthful 
eating and only then determines how best to produce the food that will 
allow us to meet those goals. It doesn’t make sense to tell people to 
eat vegetables and then produce junk; that leads only to bad health in 
the face of evident abundance. What’s so great about that?

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