Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Class Warfare, Part II

Various recent conversations have gotten me thinking about class warfare, and about the relationship between class and access to nutritious food. Unsurprisingly, the more I thought about it, the more it seems to me that lack of access to nutritious food is an instance of class warfare. Especially in a nation where the government pays farmers to produce a surplus, and buys that surplus wherever the market won't absorb it. So here's a particular instance where it seems to me that the lack of access to nutritious food is an instance of class warfare.

In many cities in America the government has banned the use of trans fats in restaurant foods. Trans fats primarily come from hydrogenated oils (look for "partially hydrogenated oil" in the ingredient list) and were initially thought to be better for you than saturated fat. Hence the "margarine is better for you than butter" shtick. But now research has established that trans fats are really, really bad for you in a number of ways. So it's great that they've banned it in restaurants. But it seems strange to me that they haven't banned it anywhere else, like in schools, prisons, daycares, senior centers, and government food programs. Why is it that the more government funding a food program gets, the more likely it is that everything they serve has trans fat in it? Why does the same government that bans it in restaurants with one hand turn around and serve it to low-income children and seniors, not to mention prisoners and other institutionalized individuals, with the other hand? The cheap breads, crackers, cookies, pancakes, biscuits, and muffins made from mixes, peanut butter, and hydrogenated "butter" spreads used predominantly in institutional kitchens and given out in food assistance programs are full of trans fat. But nobody raises an outcry about this. In fact, nobody seems to notice. And if you're the one who points it out, you typically get the raised eyebrows or eyerolling "you sound like a conspiracy theorist" response.

So the deal is this. If you're poor enough to need government assistance, then nobody gives a fuck about the amount of trans fats in your diet. Whether you're directly receiving food from the government or trying to make your food stamp budget last all month, it's likely that most of the food you eat will contain trans fats, because trans fats are cheap. But if you're financially comfortable enough to eat out all the time, your diet will be low in trans fats, and your chances of having health problems, which you're also more likely to have adequate health care to cover, will be lower. See how that works? That, my friends, is an instance of class warfare.


  1. I think the situation needs to be looked at through a poltical science/legal lens.

    If there is a push in New York City to ban trans-fats in restaurants that succeeds that is meaningless at the state level. Every other city in New York could be indifferent. If there is no local pressure to ban trans-fats in Albany or Buffalo, why would the city government ban them?

    Also, if a specific locality many restaurants don't use trans-fats, then there really is no need to ban the use.

    Also, school districts (or other agencies) could take actions into their own hands, and remove trans-fats without the requirements that laws be changed.

  2. Yes, there's a lot of political info on trans fat that I didn't cover here. The single largest political issue concerning trans fats is the power of the edible oils industry. Particularly with the USDA. Of course, both the USDA and FDA are saturated by people who have worked in the industries they're supposed to be regulating, and have financial interests in their former companies. And there's basically a revolving door between the industries and the agencies, so there's a HUGE issue there that nobody seems to want to talk about. This is the only thing I can think of that would account for the fact that the USDA is finally now officially against trans fats, but still recommends margarine over butter. Yeah, whole lotta doublespeak goin on.

    But as to the issue of different levels of gov't making these decisions...I agree that trans fat is generally banned in restaurants on the city level while gov't food programs tend to be state or federal. That's part of what I was getting at with the one hand and the other hand phrasing. However, banning trans fats is becoming very common. It's not just NY, but Seattle, Philadelphia, Boston, Minneapolis, etc. And now the state of California and possibly Oregon. So the changes are occurring on a much broader scale, while the question of what these state programs are feeding the kids at Head Start isn't even asked. Not ever.

    I think this is partially due to the forms and focus that activism in this area has taken. People have really focused on restaurants in their campaigns. But still, huge blind spot on the part of both activists and legislators. And the fact that the health and well-being of the poorest and most vulnerable in our communities is what's at stake and what's being ignored is telling.

    As to localities where restaurants simply don't use trans fats - I doubt that exists. Trans fats are so prevalent, and much of the resistance to legislation came from restaurant owners who said it would raise their costs dramatically.

    And school districts generally participate in USDA programs where they get cheap food that the gov't has purchased as surplus. This usually involves the cheapest cuts of meat, and a lot of processed foods like corn dogs (full of hydrogenated oil, nitrites, and high fructose corn syrup - a trifecta!), processed cheese that's full of lower-grade dairy by-products, etc. And what irritates me is how this is all billed as a nutritionally well-balanced diet. We feed kids this junk that's full of trans fats and HFCS and then wonder why so many of them have weight issues and are developing diabetes so young. So then we fat-shame them in order to try to get them to exercise. It's like some kind of fucked up Monty Python skit, but all too real.

  3. Damn, that's like a whole nother post. It's not at all obvious that I've spent a bit of time researching this stuff and fuming about it, is it?

  4. Serendipity3/25/2009

    OMG! I've been reading your blog for awhile but this post is forcing me to delurk. I'm so glad somebody is talking about this!!! It so needs to be said!

    That is all.

  5. Serendipity3/25/2009

    Oh! Right when I posted my comment your long one came up. We're co-commenting! The info about the regulatory agencies is really interesting. Do you happen to remember what sources you read and if there are any statistics available re lobbying and other similar activities?

    Fabulous post!

  6. Meg'n3/25/2009

    Apparently this is just the time of day when everyone shows up on Rachel's blog. :-)

    Where, or where, did you find that picture of the fabulous/awful Crisco cake?!? Who made it? And is it really made with Crisco? Think how ironic it would be if it wasn't.

    And if the only good thing you can think of to say about a food is that it's "digestible" you might have a problem.

    Oh, and I really liked this post.

  7. I have to say that I don't think the term 'class warfare' is the best term here (and we have had some back and forth over definition of terms on other sites).

    NYC has banned trans-fats for all restaurants, not just expensive restaurants or restaurants in the nice part of town. So how can that be an example of class warfare?

    Also, A google search for 'schools ban trans-fats' shows that several states are looking at banning trans-fats in schools (and other organizations)

    also, you stated our country pays farmers to produce a surplus, then buys that surplus.... I am going to need more information. Our country pays farmers to NOT produce a surplus. Also, much of what farmers produce is exported outside of the country, sometimes as aid government provided aid to third world or war-torn countries. That does not seem to be a bad use of corn...

    But back to my first comment on viewing this through a political science lense...

    You asked "Why does the same government that bans it in restaurants with one hand turn around and serve it to low-income children and seniors, not to mention prisoners and other institutionalized individuals, with the other hand?"

    Now you partially addressed this in your comments, but I think it is important to point out how many local governments there are in the United States. Like over 70,000 local governments. Also, when you add the strain of federalism (the stay out of my state/city argument) you begin to see why the federal or state governments cannot just declare a ban on trans-fats.

    Aslo, focusing on not banning trans-fats also ignores compromises, such as labeling foods as containing trans-fat. Because of all of the hype, people know trans-fats are bad... maybe not how bad, but with compromise laws labeling things as containing trans-fat a balance is struck...

    ...Because oatmeal raisin cookies made with crisco taste frightfully delicious.

  8. Well, my oatmeal raisin cookies that replace the shortening with half butter and half applesauce are very, very popular. =)

    The food programs I was referring to purchase "surplus" foods and distribute them to low-income households and institutions that qualify. For instance, the daycare we use has a certain percentage of families who receive some form of public assistance, so our daycare qualifies to receive TEFAP and TANF assistance. Mostly this comes in the form of rice and dried beans (which are nutritious, of course) canned fruit and veggies, cereal, pasta, and fruit juice. They don't accept the peanut butter that the program offers because of allergies, but the peanut butter that poor families receive from TEFAP has hydrogenated soybean oil listed as the first ingredient, then peanuts, then high fructose corn syrup, then salt. Seriously. Hydrogenated oil is the main ingredient. Real peanut butter, which is very good for you, just contains peanuts and salt. Neither the hydrogenated oil nor the HFCS is necessary, but they're cheap ingredients. Similarly, the canned fruit is packed in HFCS, which has clearly been linked to the diabetes epidemic in our country. The cereals all contain hydrogenated oil and HFCS as well. The "juice" is actually fruit punch with about 12% real fruit juice, while the main ingredient is, you guessed it, HFCS. The pasta seems to be pretty good, but the dried milk is nonfat, making it unsuitable for small children, so they only use that in cooking and baking.

    And I agree that banning trans fats isn't the only possible solution, but if that's the method of choice for the rest of us, why doesn't it apply to lower-income families? The deafening silence surrounding the issue of very high levels of trans fats in food provided to low-income families is disturbing given the hype about it for everybody else. And referring to this food as "nutritious" strikes me as being very duplicitous. So "class warfare" may be a bit strong, but when you concern yourself only with the well-being of the wealthy and middle-class and ignore the health of lower-class individuals, it's hard to see it as anything else. I agree that it's probably not conscious or intentional, so maybe "warfare" seems strange in that sense. But the effects are the same as if it was calculated and deliberate.

    As to the government issue... since the USDA is officially opposed to trans fats but still provides food to programs like TEFAP that are chock full of them, it's hard to make sense of it. I suspect they have deals with certain large food processers who purchase the "surplus" foods, process them into things like peanut butter and cereal, and sell them to the USDA programs. The political clout of the food processing groups is probably the driving force behind this, but it's still the job of a gov't agency to stand up to them and require the same standards for disadvantaged groups as for everyone else.

  9. voiceofreason9/02/2009

    Every school I've ever worked in served foods that were full of hydrogenated oils for every meal. It really is ubuquitous in institution foods.

  10. Another one that gets my goat (so to speak) is natural/organic food. That stuff is so expensive! I hear people routinely judge others who don't eat healthy enough (meaning "organic" enough), and I always tell them "I can't afford it". They usually mutter some misplaced platitude then change the subject, but not their minds. They're off to judge the next person they meet eating processed foods.