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35.5 Million Americans Are Not Suffering from “Overnutrition”

October 14, 2008

In “Farmer in Chief,” published in the New York Times on October 12th, Michael Pollan proposed a new food agenda (the “sun-food agenda”) to “wean the American food system off its heavy 20th-century diet of fossil fuel and put it back on a diet of contemporary sunshine.” Pollan characterizes hunger in the United States as a problem of “overnutrition” and urges the President Elect to support the creation of a federal definition of “food” which “must contain a certain minimum ratio of micronutrients per calorie of energy.”

Pollan’s proposal incorrectly explains the underlying causes of hunger in the United States and overlooks the 35.5 million Americans living in homes that are unable to afford enough food and 25 million forced to use food pantries and soup kitchens . In reality, the nation’s rising obesity is directly tied to the inability of low-income Americans to physically obtain and economically afford less fattening, more nutritious foods.

In addition to glossing over the real problem of hunger, Pollan’s suggestion that the federal government start preventing low-income families from using food stamp benefits to purchase what he deems to be junk food is also class biased and unrealistic. Who is he to decide that low-income American families could never again enjoy guilty pleasures like Coke? Who is to decide what qualifies as junk food?

Pollan also argues that creating a federal definition of “food” would “improve the quality of school lunch and discourage sales of unhealthful products.” However, the WIC and School Lunch Programs already value nutritional content over raw calorie counts. For example, under federal law, school lunches must be served in accordance with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, ensuring that less than 10 percent of calories come from saturated fat and requiring that each lunch provides at least one-third of the recommended levels of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, iron, and calcium.

In the end, low-income Americans cannot access healthy food that is neither physically available nor economically affordable. The answer is not, as Pollan suggests, to reduce the already meager choices available to low-income Americans by creating a federal definition of food. Rather, hunger in America – which affects 35.5 million Americans – will only end when the government ensures that all Americans have wages high enough and a government safety net robust enough to give them the real-life ability to afford more nutritious foods.

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