The Politics of Food

Do Republicans get the 'fat' vote?

Posted Mar 09, 2015

In a recent Op-ed piece in The New York Times, Krugman (2015) makes the point that with all the political rhetoric that plagues politicians these days, the best way to get a straight answer regarding what a politician stands for is to “follow the money” (para 1). Perhaps it comes as little surprise that Big Energy is the major interest group funding Republicans (after all, climate change denial is fused with a specific political agenda). What is far more surprising—at least on the surface—is that the food industry is also a key financial supporter of Republicans (Krugman, 2015). What has food got to do with politics?

It turns out, a lot. The obesity epidemic in this country and across the globe continues to expand (pardon the pun), and with that, policy makers have to make key decisions regarding what to regulate and what information consumers should be armed with to help combat our ever growing waistbands. The food industry, however, has a vested interest in keeping us mindlessly shoving their hormone fused meat and poultry and addictive processed foods and supersize sodas which further fattens us—as does the pharmaceutical company—because hosts of meds that are given for conditions that are either exacerbated by, or stem from, obesity are the chronic diseases that Americans are most commonly treated for today (e.g. type-II diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, joint problems, cancers, sleep apnea, high cholesterol, etc.).

In addition to the role that greater regulations and other policy changes on a systemic level could play in curbing the obesity epidemic (e.g. reforming school lunch offerings, etc.) the food lobby has a vested interest in framing the issue as one of “personal choice.” Thus, anytime a politician attempts to alter the cultural landscape that offers excessive, unhealthy, and extravagant portion sizes and food choices, they are met with steep resistance from the food industry cloaked in language evoking a “nanny state” or imposition on one’s personal freedom. The ethos is essentially that the right to be fat is a God given American one, and as such, nobody is going to tell us what our portion sizes should be. This argument oftentimes cuts on ideological lines, with Republicans leading the charge against any kind of regulation of the food industry, while Michelle Obama continues to attempt to combat these forces with her “Let’s Move” campaign and championing of school lunch reforms.

Despite the compelling Republican rhetoric of “personal choice” however, the problem of obesity or the larger issue of what we eat in this country, is far from having only personal consequences. In the U.S. alone, the health care costs from obesity and its related medical conditions are estimated to be in the hundreds of billions. Unfortunately, as Americans we are also very wasteful regarding how much food we buy but do not consume. While the issue of food waste is a global one, regarding the U.S.:

A report released Wednesday shows that about 60 million metric tons of food is wasted a year in the United States, with an estimated value of $162 billion. About 32 million metric tons of it end up in municipal landfills, at a cost of about $1.5 billion a year to local governments. (Nixon, 2015, para 2).

In addition to the issue of waste, research also consistently identifies that the livestock industry—and factory farming in the United States in particular—produces more greenhouse emissions than cars or other common culprits of climate change (e.g. Carrington, 2014; Safran Foer, 2009). In a perfect intersection of the politics of food, Carrington (2014) writes:

The global livestock industry produces more greenhouse gas emissions than all cars, planes, trains and ships combined, but a worldwide survey by Ipsos MORI in the report finds twice as many people think transport is the bigger contributor to global warming.

‘Preventing catastrophic warming is dependent on tackling meat and dairy consumption, but the world is doing very little,’ said Rob Bailey, the report’s lead author. ‘A lot is being done on deforestation and transport, but there is a huge gap on the livestock sector. There is a deep reluctance to engage because of the received wisdom that it is not the place of governments or civil society to intrude into people’s lives and tell them what to eat.’ (para 2-3)

The politics of food and food choices becomes even more intriguing when looking at political ideology that individuals endorse. To return to Krugman’s (2015) original assertion to follow the money to get a sense of what political candidates really stand for, he notes:

At one level, there is a clear correlation between lifestyles and partisan orientation; heavier states tend to vote Republican, and the G.O.P. lean is especially pronounced in what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call the ‘diabetes belt’ of counties, mostly in the South, that suffer most from that particular health problem. Not coincidentally, officials from that region have led the pushback against efforts to make school lunches healthier. (para 10)

And so, whether or not we realize it, our food decisions have political meaning, and the process of preparing and eating foods are in fact political acts. Perhaps some food for thought as you reflect on what political party you endorse, what underlying industries are supporting these candidates, and how that impacts the bottom line—not just of your bank account—but perhaps just as importantly, of your belly.

Carrington, D. (2014, December 2). Eating Less Meat Essential to Curb Climate Change, Says Report. The Guardian, Environment. Retrieved on March 9, 2015 from: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/dec/03/eating-less-meat-curb-climate-change

Foer Safran, J. (2009). Eating Animals. Little, Brown & Co: New York, NY.

Krugman, P. (2015, March 6). Pepperoni Turns Partisan. The New York Times, OP-ED, A29. Print Edition.

Nixon, R.. (2015, February 25). Food Waste is Becoming Serious Economic and Environmental Issue, Report Says. The New York Times, U.S. Retrieved on March 9, 2015 from: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/26/us/food-waste-is-becoming-serious-economic-and-environmental-issue-report-says.html

Copyright Azadeh Aalai 2015