Sarah Palin cookiePalin wanna cookie? [This baker needs a spellcheck.]Photo: Kevin RobertsSeveral much-emailed articles recently have scrutinized how our food choices are deeply intertwined with class and culture. Writing in The New York Times Magazine, Judith Warner weighed the Obama administration’s efforts to address obesity in the context of other government programs designed to change behavior, such as the World War II rationing program and the more recent anti-smoking efforts. Former Washington Post food reporter Jane Black and her journalist husband Brent Cunningham wrote a joint op-ed for the Post about moving to Huntington, W.Va. (site of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution show) and how surprisingly easy and affordable it is to eat healthily in “the nation’s fattest city.” And earlier this month, Christopher Anderson [correction] Lisa Miller described in Newsweek the ways in which class and food divide us.

And while all these articles are well-reasoned and balanced, it’s fair to say that they represent a reform-minded, if not overtly liberal, outlook. Miller, for example, admits at the top that she is “what you might call a food snob.” She is surrounded by friends and neighbors who consider themselves locavores and “disciples” of Michael Pollan. Meanwhile, Warner’s goal is to provide an analysis of how the Obama administration could better achieve its anti-obesity goals. And Black and Cunningham moved to Huntington from Washington, D.C. to investigate the state of reform in the wake of Oliver’s efforts there, as well as to see if they could continue to eat food as fresh, local, and healthy as they did in the nation’s capital.

To all three, changing our relationship to food is necessary, even urgent. And all three write from coastal-ish cities: Miller in New York, Warner in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Black and Cunningham in (nominally, at least) D.C.

Yet for conservatives, when coastal types start telling folks how and what they should eat, it’s nothing less than a declaration of war on the heartland. Tea Party heartthrobs Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, and Rush Limbaugh have all gone on the attack over food — accelerating the politicization of the current food debate. One would think that obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are national, not partisan issues.

In a positive development, some on the right have finally started to weigh in on the side of sanity.  

Red state blues

A blogger writing under the pseudonym Richmond Ramsey has offered this new conservative perspective on the blog run by David Frum (former special assistant to President George W. Bush). He’s shocked and alarmed at the depth of the obesity epidemic in his native South, and the concomitant resistance he’s witnessed among Southerners to change, or even admit they have a problem:

… My experience is anecdotal, of course, but I’ve seen emerging back home a growing sense that food intake is not something that can be held up for moral analysis and judgment. Those who attempt to do so are typically seen as liberal snobs trying to impose their own preferences.

There’s no doubt that liberal foodies can be horrible snobs, and excruciatingly moralistic (to shop at the organic co-op in my über-liberal neighborhood is to rub shoulders with people every bit as prissy and intolerant as the Church Lady). But at some point, it’s downright absurd for conservatives to ignore that food choices have moral implications. For me, going to my home county is an occasion for culinary culture shock, because middle-class people there simply do not have the same outlook on eating — especially for their children — as middle-class people do in my liberal city. Put plainly, people eat whatever they want, and lots of it, without giving it a second thought. More to my point here, they see the idea that one ought to care about such things as a sign of effete, high-handed liberalism.

Of course, I too am frequently shocked at the things I’ve seen middle- and upper-income “liberal elites” on the coasts — who should, according to stereotype, know better — willingly feed their children. Ramsey’s vision of the South is in fact repeated across the country, and not only because of issues of access or affordability.

All of these pieces are united by a common theme — that reforming food is really about reforming culture. We eat the way we do because of rules transferred to us (in some inchoate but powerful way) by the culture in which we grow up. Facing such a force, proposed remedies such as junk-food taxes, healthy-food subsidies, government programs, or media campaigns don’t stand a chance.

Habits can be broken

I think the worst thing that can come out of this new awakening to the scope of the food challenge — mostly regarding obesity, but of course, that’s not the only problem our current industrial food system has bequeathed to us — is that it represents a paradoxical push to inaction. That’s why I’m skeptical of laying so much of the blame on “culture.”

In reality, what is often labeled “culture” is mostly psychology — whether it be the psychology of habit, the psychology of pleasure, or even the psychological impact of our [real, not virtual] social networks. Indeed, David Roberts’ recent article here at Grist on the difficulty of breaking old habits and its relevance to addressing climate change is just as meaningful, if not more so, when applied to food. And what we need is a set of psychological shifts to get reform going — not grand, comprehensive cultural shifts. Culture is a collection of accepted behaviors — as the behaviors change, so does our culture. And that kind of broad cultural change can happen, and already has over time.

Indeed, we have already had great success against unhealthy “cultural” practices — and one example in particular stands out. While many still object to the association between the current “food fight” and the anti-smoking campaigns of yore, there’s no question of one thing. Fifty years ago smoking seemed totally normal. Most people did it, ads for smoking were everywhere, kids puffed on candy cigarettes, industry worked tirelessly to bury damaging research and undermine those who performed it and the idea that smoking was bad for you was almost un-American.

That has all utterly changed. It took decades of public and private effort and billions of dollars in spending, but attitudes and habits were transformed. Does anyone now consider anti-smoking a partisan issue? Sarah Palin is handing out cookies at elementary schools, not cigarettes on college campuses. And while cigarette companies are still standing (and profiting), they are a shadow of the overpowering political force they once were. Defenders of smoking, once atop the political mountain, have fled the field.

The fact is, we are engaged in a generational struggle (please, let’s not call it a “war”) over food — and while the Gl
enn Becks and Sarah Palins of the world want you to believe this is about personal choice and blue state vs. red states, it’s actually about existential issues like life expectancy, unsustainable economic trends, and, as conservative David Frum himself reminds us in a column on CNN.com, national security.

It seems worth the bipartisan effort. Meanwhile, what’s the other side fighting for? The Twinkie Diet. I would say those in favor of reform are on the right side of history in this struggle. The question is, Do they really have the stomach for it?