Saturday, April 21, 2012

Is McDonalds the Opiate of the Poor?

Apparently "food deserts" - neighborhoods lacking in access to quality groceries - don't have as much to do with obesity as some thought.  Kevin Drum has an interesting piece up trying to disentangle the results from some recent studies on the issue.  One study finds that "Access to different kinds of stores didn't have any impact on weight gain among elementary-school-aged children".  From another, "Obesity rates among supermarket shoppers closely tracked both food prices and incomes," he found, but not the kinds of food available. Shoppers at Albertson's, a low-cost chain, were far more obese than shoppers at Whole Foods, even though both provided plenty of access to fresh fruits and vegetables."  Another study of 13,000 California kids found "no relationship between what type of food students said they ate, what they weighed, and the type of food within a mile and a half of their homes…Living close to supermarkets or grocers did not make students thin and living close to fast food outlets did not make them fat."

The Mother Jones comments to the piece are illustrative of what I think is an interesting picture of how liberals tend to perceive poverty.  On the one hand, you have people dismissing the findings, claiming that it all comes down to price: that poor people simply can't afford quality foods, even when offered.  This assumes that there is a nutritional consciousness, but that it is overcome by economic realities.  On the other hand, you have people saying that there is no nutritional consciousness, that the problem is due to a lack of the requisite knowledge to discern healthy from unhealthy diets. 

Between these competing narratives, you have a tension between not wanting to blame poor people and assuming that their choices are rational, and trying to explain poor choices in the context of lack of education.

It is a fascinating discussion, and there aren't any easy answers.  Poor people clearly tend to make more poor choices.  But to what extent are these choices unavoidable, and to what extent do they represent a lack of education?  The term consciousness is interesting, because it encompasses both what might be a lack of education, or world-knowledge, as well as lack of self-knowledge.  For instance, one might know that food A is better for you (world-knowledge), but feel compelled to choose food B, a less healthier, yet more immediately satisfying choice.  The degree to which one gives in to temptation is partly due to an understanding of one's good vs. bad habits (self-knowledge). 

Now, this second aspect of consciousness - self-knowledge - is tricky.  It is very difficult to disentangle to what extent one's conscious perception is based on prior habits, and how much it is being directly influenced by environmental factors.  We all struggle at times to eat healthy.  Yet after a long, stressful day at work, the struggle becomes much more difficult.  This is especially true when one feels as though the unhealthy yet highly-craved choice is felt to be a sort of reward, as in, "My day was so hard - I deserve this."  In this sense, the choice becomes rationalized as a form of justice.  It isn't hard to imagine that the more one feels that their lot in life is unjust, that giving in to poor choices can seem justified. 

I'm reminded of an incredibly interesting study done on the behavior of rats and their seeming sense of justice and motivation.  Unfortunately, I've searched in vain for a link.  But from memory, apparently it was found that when rats were placed within viewing distance of other rats, their motivation decreased significantly when they observed inequity in reward.  Other research in non-humans has found similar evidence: inequity and unfairness tends to create anger and resentment.  It makes sense that this would at the very least create stress.  And there is much evidence that stress leads to compensatory, pleasure-inducing mechanisms of self-stimulation to recapture dopamine.  When all else fails, eat a candy bar.

This is a Marxist analysis, so it is only appropriate to paraphrase Marx in asking whether low-nutrition, high-pleasure foods are the opiates of the masses.

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