Is McDonald’s to blame?

Abraham Epton

The "obesity epidemic" currently afflicting the US has no easily-identified cause, but McDonald???s is a common scapegoat. That???s just another example of class snobbery, according to this article by Brendan O???Neill. He takes particular umbrage at the movie Super Size Me, newly released in Britain, in which director Morgan Spurlock goes on a month-long all-McDonald???s diet. According to O???Neill, the movie, ???like so many other anti-McDonald???s campaigns, comes with a generous side order of snobbery. Its real target is the people who eat in McDonald???s - the apparently stupid, fat, unthinking masses who scoff Big Macs without even asking to see a nutritional and calorie breakdown first.??? O???Neill expands his critique to the wider debate over healthy eating and obesity, finding that ???there???s a large portion of moralising in the panics over obesity, school dinners, junk-food-guzzling and the rest. What is presented as straightforward medical concern for our health and wellbeing is often really a judgement on lifestyle and behaviour - and especially the lifestyle and behaviour of a certain class of people.??? Let???s get some things straight: Americans really are fat, and being fat really is bad. That said, O???Neill is right to make the rather facile observation that much of what passes for concern over the public health has more than a touch of self-righteousness to it. Living on a college campus, I am accosted daily by wild-eyed preachers, some raving about Salvation through Jesus and others about Salvation through Soy. Neither group I find particularly pleasant, due in no small part to the unwavering conviction shared by both that they are saving my heathen soul. I like meat, I like sin, and I don???t care to justify either. There is something else at work here, however, and that is the class divide, hinted at in O???Neill???s article. The vegetarian co-op is not unique to Berkeley, but it is much more common in university and upper-middle-class neighborhoods in this country. The same can be said for the health club and the Whole Foods store, while the inverse is true of McDonald???s and Taco Bell franchises: their density is much higher in places where average incomes are lower. The socioeconomic explanations for this are undoubtedly fairly complex, but to me they boil down to one simple observation: health costs money. Leaner, higher-quality, fresher meat is more expensive than frozen, pre-packaged kinds; fresh, organic fruit juice is more expensive than heavily-sweetened fruit ???juices??? containing 15% real juice, and fresh wheat bread is more expensive than WonderBread. This NPR story captures it perfectly: families on limited food budgets simply can???t afford to eat healthily (according to the USDA, in 1998 the lowest-earning 20% of households spent under $4 per person per day on food. That works out to 4 McDonald???s hamburgers, or one 6-piece California roll.) It???s a sad fact of life that in this country, poverty makes it harder to be healthy, and this extends to areas outside of food purchasing. For example, the Yellow Pages lists 68 health clubs on the whiter, richer North Side of Chicago, and only 28 on the poorer and blacker South Side (and in fact, some of these 25 are located in the upper-class areas of the South Loop and Hyde Park.) Not to mention health insurance, day care, early-childhood education…everything that the upper classes in this country take for granted. So the tragic statistic that one in three cases of childhood obesity can be linked to a low level of income comes as no surprise.

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