My Thoughts On the Bittman Piece Re: Taxing Unhealthy Food

by Bettina Elias Siegel on July 25, 2011

By now many of you have seen or heard about an opinion piece in Sunday’s New York Times by food writer Mark Bittman, in which he advocates revamping the American diet through economic incentives and disincentives (“Bad Food? Tax It, and Subsidize Vegetables“):

Simply put: taxes would reduce consumption of unhealthful foods and generate billions of dollars annually. That money could be used to subsidize the purchase of staple foods like seasonal greens, vegetables, whole grains, dried legumes and fruit.

Bittman’s idea is not new, of course; many experts and policy groups have long recommended soda taxes, for example, or government-issued vouchers for farmers’ market produce, and some municipalities in the U.S. (and some countries outside the U.S.) have toyed with, or in fact implemented, such taxes or similar concepts.  But Bittman’s piece is notable for making a persuasive argument for the use of taxes and subsidies to reshape our diet, systematically laying out the benefits and dispatching the arguments of potential detractors, in a widely-read newspaper.

As regular readers of TLT could probably predict, I’m fully on board with the program Bittman outlines.  As he points out, economic incentives have already played a key role leading to the current public health crisis (via government corn and soy subsidies that favor the manufacture and purchase of unhealthful foods), so why not apply common sense and throw that system in reverse?  As Bittman notes, staple foods like fruit, whole grains and legumes would then be as widely available as chips and soda are today:

We could sell those staples cheap — let’s say for 50 cents a pound — and almost everywhere: drugstores, street corners, convenience stores, bodegas, supermarkets, liquor stores, even schools, libraries and other community centers.

The benefits of such a program, according to Bittman:

A 20 percent increase in the price of sugary drinks nationally could result in about a 20 percent decrease in consumption, which in the next decade could prevent 1.5 million Americans from becoming obese and 400,000 cases of diabetes, saving about $30 billion.

My quibbles with Bittman’s piece are these:

First, he mostly overlooks another critical factor in the obesity crisis, which is a widespread abandonment of home cooking by many Americans.  (Remember the single dad on this past season’s Food Revolution, who fed his kids fast food nine times a week because he didn’t know how to cook?)  Unfortunately, many Americans wouldn’t possess the necessary knowledge — or the desire — to cook up a bag of navy beans and a sack of brown rice, even if they were readily available in their neighborhood 7-11 for 5o cents a pound.  Bittman does suggest that some of the funds raised by his program could be used for “recipes, cooking lessons, even cookware for those who can’t afford it,” but we’re really talking about not only the need for major cultural re-education with respect to cooking, but also a huge shift in the public’s expectation that food should always be tasty, cheap, fully prepared — and immediately available.

My deeper concern, however, is that Bittman just doesn’t want to acknowledge today’s political reality.  That is, I’m glad Bittman makes the point that we will never get anywhere if we look to major food manufacturers to fix our current problems for us.  As he writes:

. . . the food industry appears incapable of marketing healthier foods. And whether its leaders are confused or just stalling doesn’t matter, because the fixes are not really their problem. Their mission is not public health but profit, so they’ll continue to sell the health-damaging food that’s most profitable, until the market or another force skews things otherwise. That “other force” should be the federal government, fulfilling its role as an agent of the public good and establishing a bold national fix.

But Bittman never squarely addresses the fact that the federal government, his proposed Agent of Good, is presently hamstrung by the financial influence of the very same food industry he opposes; corporate and agricultural lobbyists would wage a full scale war, the likes of which we may not have seen, against the program he suggests.

Does that mean we shouldn’t pursue it?  Of course not.  But as a tiny reality check, let’s remember that the food industry, with the enthusiastic assistance of House Republicans, this year quite successfully warded off purely voluntary federal guidelines on the marketing of junk food to children.  (“Score One for Big Food: Industry Preempts New Fed Guidelines on Marketing Food To Kids.“)  Let’s also remember how First Lady Michelle Obama has been repeatedly bashed by the far right (“More From the Food Culture War Front“) for her Let’s Move! initiative, which, in general, promoted more parental – not governmental — involvement in kids’ food choices.

So it felt a bit like an understatement when Bittman wrote, “though [the program] would take a level of political will that’s rarely seen, it’s hardly a moonshot.”  More like a Mars-shot, in my opinion.

The thing is, I’m betting that in the long run, we actually will see a program like Bittman’s instituted in this country.   The skyrocketing health care costs directly attributable to obesity-related disease (which Bittman pegs at “$344 billion by 2018 — with roughly 60 percent of that cost borne by the federal government”) simply aren’t sustainable, and Bittman made no mention of another very serious problem, i.e., the national security threat posed by rising obesity rates (see my interview with “Mission Readiness,” a group of retired military generals addressing this issue, here and here).

The only question is when the political climate will be ripe for change.  On a national level, I don’t feel we’re remotely there yet.  My guess is that, as Bittman suggests, it will take forward-thinking city governments to first begin instituting these policies, and the revenue stream they enjoy may just be too tempting for other cash-strapped cities to ignore.

So, that’s my take.  What did you think about Bittman’s piece?  Share your thoughts in a comment below.

 

 

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{ 47 comments… read them below or add one }

Dina Rose July 25, 2011 at 8:50 am

I think it’s spot on, though I agree with you, that the political reality ain’t there yet.

Dina

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 25, 2011 at 4:53 pm

sigh . . .

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Bri July 25, 2011 at 8:53 am

I fully agree with everything you’ve said, Bettina, especially the part about the looming eventuality of this type of program. What I keep thinking about, though, is that one key challenge you and Mark Bittman both referenced — the lack of cooking know-how, utensils, and facilities. It’s something I think we’re all aware of, but we all still dismiss in some ways — thinking that people will just have to learn, damn it, and like it.
I’m usually all for the “you’ll have to learn and suck it up” approach to basic life skills, but this is a big stretch. So big, in fact, that I think I’ll blog about it tonight. I can see a major hole in the landscape that we’ll have to creatively fill….

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 25, 2011 at 9:29 am

Can’t wait to read, Bri – please come back and share the link here.

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Bri July 25, 2011 at 7:51 pm
Grace @eatdinner July 25, 2011 at 9:09 am

As always, thank you TLT for the thoughtful post! I totally agree. Reading through Bittman’s article, I kept waiting (and waiting) for him to mention the role of home-cooked meals. (I know he believes in them.) Perhaps he didn’t want to water down his political piece with such a “mundane” concern.

But cooking at home and family dinner are not mundane, take-for-granted concerns. Those subsidized vegetables and grains (which I support, totally) are not going to jump up and cook themselves. We have to regain the respect given to family meals and recognize the value that they hold for both families and society. I think better healthier eating will be close behind.

As for politics, they are always there. I have a Ph.D in political science and public health, and one thing I learned in my long road of academic study is that you can never predict the perfect conditions for political change. You just have to keep plugging away for what you believe in, and sometimes the stars align, even when you would least expect. I was glad Bittman referred to the tobacco settlement. It was a game changer in the public health fight against smoking. Regulatory changes to fight obesity may not play out the same exact way, but it’s a great lesson to start from.

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 25, 2011 at 9:31 am

Grace – I was thinking of you when I wrote this post this morning, knowing that you probably have far more facts and figures at your disposal on the home cooking point. I do take your point, though, about not trying to wait for the “perfect moment.” Maybe we’re closer than I think, and, as you say, it shouldn’t stop advocates from trying.

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Grace @eatdinner July 25, 2011 at 4:15 pm

Thanks Bettina. Just saw this study today ( http://t.co/gn0udKY ) that said much of increased calories in last ten years among children is from more meals eaten “away from home.” Soda clearly figuring into that, as many kids meals come with soda “free.”

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 25, 2011 at 4:52 pm

PEACHSF sent me that link as well today. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising but it really backs up the points we’ve been discussing today, doesn’t it? I may post about that study tomorrow, hat tip to you and PEACHSF, of course!

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Barry July 25, 2011 at 11:16 am

Thank you for the article and the links. I have mixed comments. Frist let me start with the positive. I have been involved in school food service for the past 17 years now. And I have been advocating for the type of changes that are being discussed in the news today. FLOTUS gets credit for starting the conversation on a national level, but this is NOT new. Parent educaiton and training, nutrition education in school and common sense decision making have been lacking for many years. Since Home Ec was eliminated, how do children learn to cook? The current parent generation did not have the advantage of Home Ec to learn from and the previous parent group didn’t want to spend time in the kitchen. The pendelium has swung from one extreme to the other and has started to move back now. Change takes time, takes awareness, training and education.
Now, for the taxes, I don’t think it will have much affect at all. Raising the taxes does not stop people from continuing to purchase. To cite tobacco as the best example, might not be beneficial. Some people have stopped, more taxes have been raised, but just look at how many people still smoke. Taxes on gas has hardly reduced the use of gas.
Obestiy has reached an epedemic level and educaiton and training are what will make the change. The perfect place to start IS in schools which can help the next generation. The health cost spent now is mostly on adults. How do we change that situation?
Putting PE, recess and incorporating nutrition education and training back in schools CAN and DOES make a difference.
Good Day~

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Karen July 25, 2011 at 11:57 am

Time to bring cooking classes back to our high schools. I agree with all of it!

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Melissa House July 26, 2011 at 11:27 am

The cooking classes are there and on the rise due to Food Network. They call home ec, Family and Consumer Sciences, FCS now. They also offer a career cluster which students take several food classes, leads to culinary, and hospitality, then to a practicum (work exper.). All of this moves the student to a college with credits, and it is a bridge to get kids on a career before college that leads them to college. It is a wonderful thing. I teach this subject, but cannot get a job due to the teacher layoffs,and down sizing. The new thing is, schools are building commercial kitchens to teach culinary, but are they truly teaching students culinary. The answer is no, it is becoming a catering business for the schools, schools save money, all on the backs of child labor. I refuse to teach that type of class. Next, we have the largest school district Houston who stopped teaching students FCS, and only teaching students college bound courses hoping kids will go to college and skip the career part. Studies prove only 30% children go straight into college. We have to build steps to get the others there.

Schools have lost focus, and until food education becomes a core class, and is a part of yearly testing, it will sit on the side line in education. I believe food education is the best way to make change, taught from k-12. First it is food identification, next is gardening, then comes nutrition, and final is cooking. I feel like I am fighting a lost cause with our education system and their priorities. When did health classes lose its priority? I belief health should be one of our first priorities in life and it starts with what we eat to keep us ALIVE!

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Nina Simonds July 25, 2011 at 1:59 pm

Bettina:

Bravo on your thoughtful remarks on Mark Bittman’s NYT op-ed piece and the subsequent comments of readers on your website. This is a very complicated issue and while we all agree on the basic premise of the article and it should be applauded, I would have liked to read about more comprehensive suggestions regarding solutions and suggesting tangible steps we can take to affect change.

Thanks again.

Nina

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 25, 2011 at 3:45 pm

Nina: Thank you for the kind words. I know that Bittman was limited in the space given to make his argument and he probably felt compelled to address this issue from the most basic starting point. But for those of us already on board with the idea of taxation/subsidies, I think there was little frustration over the lack of detail on some points. At any rate, so kind of you to comment here! (For readers not familiar with Nina Simonds, she is one of the leading authorities on Chinese cooking and I have had one of her books, “Spoonful of Ginger,” on my shelf for years. I’m doing a little swoon right now! :-) )

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Bri July 26, 2011 at 8:35 am

Oh. My. God. I’m geeking out! I bought “Spoonful of Ginger” when I was in college, as a gift for my Mom (and a sneaky gift for my sister and myself, too, as we shamelessly used it). Thanks for reminding me that I need to get Mom to pull that one back out so I can reacquaint myself with its magical deliciousness. :-)

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Dana Woldow July 25, 2011 at 3:19 pm

You know you are doing something right when the American Council on Science and Health says you are wrong.
http://tinyurl.com/3nfabo3
Many years ago, a colleague and I wrote about this organization for what it really is – a shill for the junk food industry.
http://tinyurl.com/3ullsoq
There was a time when ACSH were not afraid to reveal who their funders were, but those days are long gone. In fact, this outfit is so concerned with concealing the identity of the junk food companies which fund them that even though they post their Form 990 on their website, the 5 pages comprising Schedule B – which is where they are required to reveal their funders’ names and how much they contributed – have been deleted from the online version of the form (scroll to page 14 and notice that after schedule A on page 14, the form jumps to Schedule D on page 19.)
http://tinyurl.com/3ns5bjx

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 25, 2011 at 3:49 pm

I was not aware of these folks but they sound like my most fave “industry watch dog” group, the Center for Consumer Freedom! I hadn’t thought to check them out today but of course they, too, have a response to Bittman: http://consumerfreedom.com/news_detail.cfm/h/4493-the-tax-man-comethfor-your-fridge

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Kim @ CoffeePotChronicles July 25, 2011 at 5:45 pm

Thank you for this piece, truly. I’m currently writing a position paper for a class of mine (and actually enjoying it) and decided to use Bittman’s piece as part of my arguments.

Unfortunately, I suffer from a weight issue and tend to not eat nearly as healthy as I should. Rather than it being a result of an on the go lifestyle, it’s a result of a one income household and not enough income to support a healthier lifestyle. Even though Bittman’s suggestions are challenging and possibly impractical as the article in Center for Consumer Freedom indicates, the ideas are there and that is what I feel is important.

Radical changes need to be made to the food industry before our country ends up killing itself or costing billions of unnecessary dollars down the road. Unfortunately, this is not a black and white situation that can be fixed easily or without a fight but I personally feel that any change, any push for change is better than none at all.

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 25, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Kim – glad this post was helpful! Just curious – what’s the class and what position are you taking (if you feel like sharing)?

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Kim @ CoffeePotChronicles July 25, 2011 at 9:24 pm

I am taking Advanced Composition this session. I’ve finally returned to school to complete my Bachelors degree after 5 years of being away from college. Me being as crazy as I am decided to take this course as my first class. I enjoy writing so I decided to knock it out first.

My initial position was to argue that it is possible to eat well without it being too expensive. I’m starting to move it more into a position of agreeing with Bittman’s stance while arguing against the idea of a tax in the process. While some arguments say a calorie is a calorie and junk food really isn’t that big of a deal, I’d like to argue that it is high time we step in and do something about the current food industry.

This paper is creating a few headaches and seems to change points of view the more I write it and find research but it’s only supposed to be 2-3 pages long. I’m working on establishing my position and sticking to it in addition to arguing the opposing side’s perspective.

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 26, 2011 at 7:22 am

Good for you for going back to school! I don’t have all the facts and figures you have at your fingertips but I would argue that eating well can be done cheaply — if you’re willing to cook. Even without BIttman’s subsidies, staples like grains and beans are already inexpensive, and while buying organic is great, it’s still better to buy conventionally grown produce than to forego fresh produce. At any rate, good luck with your paper! :-)

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Christina @ Spoonfed July 26, 2011 at 9:38 am

Kim: Regarding that “a calorie is a calorie” business, you might find this new study helpful: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/19/health/19brody.html?_r=2&pagewanted=2&ref=general&src=me It validates that all calories indeed are *not* equal, and that “moderation” is nothing but a food-industry construct to justify junk. Sounds like it might be a good source for your paper.

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Dana Woldow July 26, 2011 at 10:42 am

Chris, you are so right about that! The minute you hear the word “moderation”, or my favorite line from the junk food industry spokeswhores “All foods can fit in a healthy diet”, your BS detector should go off.

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Christina @ Spoonfed July 26, 2011 at 7:34 pm

Dana, you should read this recent post from Andy Bellatti: http://smallbites.andybellatti.com/?p=7279

I have a feeling you’ll like it as much as I did.

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Justin Gagnon July 27, 2011 at 11:33 am

The Bellatti post is awesome. Definitely sent that one around the office…

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 27, 2011 at 11:55 am

Yes, this whole notion of “all calories are equal” and “enjoy everything in moderation” is the ultimate smoke screen for the junk food industrial complex. I really do believe you can enjoy everything in moderation — I certainly do. But the difference is, I don’t have a hundred kazillion dollar ad budget at my disposal to bludgeon you over the head with repeated messages designed to get you to buy those foods all the time, nor am I benefitting from government subsidies that make those foods temptingly cheap and easy to buy. When the playing field is so grossly uneven, the concept of “moderation” and “personal responsibility” (another fave catchword of the day) become a lot less meaningful, as far as I’m concerned.

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Justin Gagnon July 27, 2011 at 12:28 pm

I have someone very close in my life who suffered from bulimia for years, and I’ve been through Family/Friends counsling of an intensive outpatient eating disorder clinic. Stigmatizing food IS real, and we do need to be mindful of it, but the line of reasonsing has been distorted to allow for a free-for-all.

That said, my hot button isn’t so much the moderation argument (I like the always/sometimes/rarely). It’s the “calories in, calories out” argument. Weight and health are strongly linked, but no synonymous. Eating a 2000-kcal diet of french fries is not that same as a 2000-kcal diet rich in plant-based foods and with very little processed food.

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Kim July 26, 2011 at 8:39 pm

Kim, this blog might help you with eating healthfully on a budget: http://www.100daysofrealfood.com/category/100-days-of-real-food-on-a-budget/

Best of luck to you in your current class and beyond…..

(another) Kim

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Justin Gagnon July 25, 2011 at 9:40 pm

My question is why didn’t Bittman call for the significant reduction or even elimination of current industrial ag subsidies for corn and soy? It seems incredibly silly that we should subsidize on one end, making processed foods cheaper, only to tax on the other end. Why not attack the problem at the root?

I think the taxation argument seems great in theory, but the implementation would be incredibly cumbersome. Where would your draw the line? Reminds me of the “foods of minimal nutritional value” and how food manufacturers always find ways to slip baked cheetos in there right under the regs.

I’d be interested to hear why Bittman did not advocate for tackling at the root? Surely he considered it. Manipulating the markets at one end to then have to manipulate them in the other end seems like it would be rife with ineeficiencies and potential loopholes.

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 26, 2011 at 7:18 am

Justin: It’s funny – I just assumed that his scheme included a reduction in corn and soy subsidies as well. Otherwise, I agree, it makes less sense. I’m going to go back and re-read the piece now to see if that was stated or implied somehow.

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EdT. July 26, 2011 at 4:06 pm

Less sense? Try “no sense” – at least, not outside of the halls of Big Government and Big Agri-Business!

~EdT.

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Christina @ Spoonfed July 26, 2011 at 9:32 am

Justin: Bittman did touch briefly on subsidies for staple (vs. commodity) crops. And he’s previously written extensively about his belief that we should subsidize small farms (whole foods), not agribusiness (corn, soy, et al). One example: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/01/dont-end-agricultural-subsidies-fix-them/ So I do think that’s part of it.

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EdT. July 26, 2011 at 4:02 pm

If subsidies are needed, then they should be implemented at the LOCAL level, aimed at LOCAL farmers. Keep the Feds out of it, that way the agribusiness lobbyists will have to spread their efforts over a lot wider range (many of whom of course won’t have any agribusiness interests nearby.) It also allows for tailoring crops to that which grows naturally in the area, rather than a “one size fits all” matter (which I can pretty much GUARANTEE would be the result of a state/federal approach.)

~EdT.

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Viki July 26, 2011 at 4:22 pm

totally agree with EdT on the Local implementation of funds and tailoring of crops to areas in which they grow best. Now if we could just do something about the big Monsanto Machine…(Which might just turn us into Zombies. see Eds response below.)

While most people seem to know how to open a can or a box and heat and serve that kind of food. Taking food from it’s fresh state to a finished meal is alien for many people. B is right about people not knowing how to cook up that bag of beans or rice in this instant age.

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Justin Gagnon July 27, 2011 at 12:36 pm

I heard him touch on subsidies for staple vs commodity, but didn’t hear him call for the elimination of commodity subsidies (which I thought I remembered him being a proponent of). Thanks for sending me the link – I guess you can’t touch every issue in every article.

It is incredible how much more expensive fresh food is. My wife was lamenting at how expensive our grocery bill was this week – $200. This wasn’t Whole Foods shopping, either. We’re talking a Trader Joe’s run of almost entirely fruits and veg and some lean protein (OK, and 2 sub-$10 bottles of Pinot…that sounds so much more snobby when I type it out). And we’re just a family of 5 with a 3 1/2 year old and twins under 1 (but the boys eat all fresh steamed veg and legumes, and they eat like monsters).

We’d love to do more Farmer’s Market shopping, but trying to coordinate fresh ingredient procurement with two differeing nap schedules and a virtul circus at home is a feat in itself. We’re lucky to even make it to the grocery store, let alone designated Farmer’s Market times.

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Viki July 26, 2011 at 10:47 am

I’m not completely on board with Bittman. People still smoke even with the taxes on tobacco products. It comes down to people cooking and learning to cook. (perhaps we are to all buy his cookbooks?) I didn’t learn how to cook at home and I was raised int eh 60’s and 70’s. Mom and Grandma did most of the cooking. There wasn’t room for me in the Kitchen. Dad was inspiring after he retired he started cooking…by reading. I taught myself to cook in college, by reading and trial and error. The need and the desire was there and I didn’t really like “fast food”. As I said in a comment on another post this may come back to Literacy and the desire to cook. If people don’t want to cook, you can’t make them. If they can’t read, they can’t learn easily. (Home Ec taught me next to nothing)
A friend sent me a quote this morning that I thought fit this discussion as well as many others in the Food issue.

“If people let government decide what foods they eat and what medicines they take, their bodies will soon be in as sorry a state as are the souls of those who live under tyranny.”
Thomas Jefferson
(Third US President (1801-09). Author of the Declaration of Independence. 1762-1826)

By subsidizing corn and soy, and by letting the government control the food in schools using those subsidized foods we have done this to ourselves. HFCS & processed cheap foods. Can we really reverse course by taxing those substances now and paying farmers to grow the good stuff?
Those commodites are easily stored. Fresh strawberries and lettuce, not so much.

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EdT. July 26, 2011 at 4:04 pm

*slow clap*

Also: Yes, we will definitely need the canned goods for when the Zombie Apocalypse comes!

~EdT.

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Viki July 26, 2011 at 4:24 pm

MRE’s EdT. They are probably worse than “School Food” but you’ll survive the Zombie Apocalypse with that and a flame thrower.

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Maggie July 27, 2011 at 9:53 am

“…paying farmers to grow the good stuff.”

Does the government need to get involved? Will consumers be able to pay a living wage to farmers who would grow food, if a person is not willing or able to grow your own? Willing to eat what is local/in season, even if it is not beautiful and perfect?

What about preserving for off-season if you live in an area where weather means you can’t grow year around? I’m guessing if people don’t know how to cook, they don’t know how to can, freeze, dry…whatever. Storage space for the preserved goods?

We might have burned a lot of bridges as far as food supply.

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Viki July 27, 2011 at 10:45 am

Maggie Paying the farmers to grow the “good stuff” is part of Bittmans idea: take the federal monies away from the corn and soy industries (big ag) and move it to the farmers who grow the “good stuff”. He has said it in several of his articles and in his book Food Matters. If Federal monies are going to be used to prop up the food industry, I for one would rather they help the family farmer than the Industrial giants. Except would that mean that the small farmers would be beholden to them. (Like the miners when they bought from “the company”)

I do agree with you that we have burned a lot of bridges as far as the food supply goes and not just in preserving our food.

I know how to can, freeze and dry food (even have a dehydrator) I just don’t always take the time to do it. I am more likely to freeze extra produce. IF the power grid fails I’m in trouble.

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Maggie July 27, 2011 at 1:12 pm

Viki, I may not have spoken clearly. I agree that if the monies have to be spent, sure, better for the small family farmer – but as you’ve said, that has the potential to go downhill too, depending on what the government would actually provide & how much control they would exert. But…why government involvement at all? If, for example, I’m not willing or able to grow my own, shouldn’t I be willing to pay the price to have it done for me?

Someone a lot smarter than me can probably give some idea of what that would do to food prices and what it would do to our nation’s economy if the production of soybeans and corn (which are often exported) would drop dramatically.

I know that the canning supply companies are advertising a lot of info about canning – so it might make a comeback – glad to hear your story about preserving foods. Although, here (Bettina’s blog) we are probably all “preaching to the choir” about cooking and preserving and the like.

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Melissa House July 27, 2011 at 1:59 pm

I don’t understand why our government would subsidize a company to turn around and sell it in another country and that company gets the profit. That would mean we are paying companies with our money to sell their good abroad. Hum..is that what oil companies do too? This is a great question. I would like know. Yet, we do that with corn for gas, we subsidize it for the corn grower to sell it abroad, so who is getting the income the government or what?

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Kim July 26, 2011 at 9:45 pm

I’m with Bittman 100%. He does not say that the USDA subsidies for corn and soybeans should continue. Instead, he says that they should be reallocated to support staples (i.e. vegetables). Remember that the title of his article is “Bad Food? Tax It, and Subsidize Vegetables“.

As for adults who don’t know how to cook, they need to step it up and learn. Are they going to starve if processed food becomes prohibitively expensive? I don’t think so. I think in most cases, they don’t want to know how to cook (kind of like I don’t want to know how to mow the lawn but I could sure as hell figure it out if I had to). With all the cooking programs on TV, cook books available for free in public libraries, and countless cooking web sites and blogs available on the Internet, friends and family who would probably be glad to help people learn to cook, there is no excuse (except possibly illiteracy or intellectual or physical challenges).

Similar to Viki, my parents taught me nothing whatsoever about managing money. There was no room for me in their financial discussions. So what? I taught myself how to manage my money without their help. I read books and magazines from the library (long before the Internet was even imagined), asked questions to my friends, my school teachers and college professors, my boss at work, people at my bank, my insurance agent, and anyone I trusted who was willing to share their knowledge with me. I didn’t whine that mommy and daddy never taught me how to balance my checkbook or apply for a mortgage. It would have been nice if my parents had taught me what I needed to know. But since they didn’t, I made sure I got the knowledge I needed from other sources. Same can be done with cooking (though I am an advocate of teaching basic cooking skills to all kids in school).

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Sally July 27, 2011 at 6:41 am

Thank you for this thoughtful post and all the thoughtful comments. As Nina Simonds says, it’ s complicated. I tend to agree with Bittman that something as drastic as taxation may be a good measure to begin to shift this. As noted by many on this blog, cooking is also a major factor. People just don’t know how! Home Ec may not be working now (and it is not in a lot of schools) but it, too, surely should be part of the solution. So many layers to this; it is discouraging.
YET, I also am encouraged by college kids taking an interest (for example, my own kid, who had literally NO interest in cooking until he started eating dorm food-is now WWOOF-ing on an organic farm for the summer. I expect to see much more hands on in the kitchen when he comes home. I say this because I think this group is a target we might be able to hit. And that gives me some hope. How to do it is the $64,000.00 question.

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Melissa House July 27, 2011 at 1:29 pm

I commented above and Home ec of the 80’s is not the same as it is today. Student in high school can start on a career path in hospitality. These are the classes: restaurant management, culinary arts, food and nutrition, food science, and hospitality, to name a few. Problem is the economy is hurting and teaching those classes are not as widely available.

Raising taxes will hurt the poor more than it will help to create change. I don’t feel change should come at their expense. It is true that taxing cigarets created a shift of 60% or so less smokers. I quite because of the price. Eating however, we all cannot just quit the habit. What the food industry does not tell us is they put HFCS in everything, why? Because it tricks your brain into not being satisfied, therefore you will eat more. To me that is just like what tobacco companies do. Getting HFCS out of the industry will help.

We do have to make the good food available to all at a fair rate. A major problem is the fact we have food deserts everywhere, taxing the poor until we solve that problem is not the answer. We do however, need to take the money we give to ag industry for corn, soy, and wheat and give it to fruits and vegi growers. That is a no brainier. I do think once you take that money out of their pockets, prices in processed foods will sky rocket on their own.

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Nina Simonds July 27, 2011 at 4:49 pm

Spoonful” just came out in paperback ( FINALLY!!) and we have a whole series of videos promoting it, but I don’t like to be too self-promoting, which is stupid because no one else on Twitter seems to have that problem. :))

BTW, I reread Mark’s piece and I think he did well for starting the conversation. I think all the action is going to take place state by state because obviously nothing seems able to happen in Washington. 

I’m amazed at your feedback. Where are you located?? 

I tried to message this to you, but my iPad is frozen.

Nina

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Bettina Elias Siegel July 28, 2011 at 4:30 pm

Nina – We applaud self-promotion for a book of such healthful, beautiful recipes! :-) I’ll email you offline with my contact info.

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