Jamie OliverJamie OliverPhoto: Downing Street via Flickr

What struck me most about the profile of celebrity chef and food activist Jamie Oliver in the NYT Magazine’s Food Issue was not his valiant attempts to re-educate Americans on the importance of scratch cooking. It’s that the poor man could have used some serious therapy as a child. Oliver is severely dislexic, was woken up by his father at 6:30 a.m. every morning by a dousing from the garden hose (“People die in bed,” his father would say), was working in his father’s pub at the age of 6 and cooking there by 13 — and became a TV star in his early 20s. As the father of two small boys, I wanted to weep when I read that. Another reminder that wunderkindery and media stardom often derive from a complicated childhood.

So I’ll outsource some of the debate over the policy aspects of the article to Matt Ygelsias and Ezra Klein who were trying to decide how realistic/meaningful it is to address obesity through encouraging people to cook. Matt said it wasn’t and Ezra said it probably wasn’t but for different reasons. And then Matt figured out the bankshot logic that meant maybe it was. So there you have it.

But within that back and forth, Ezra observed that the “problem is that the evidence suggests meals aren’t driving the rise in obesity — snacks are.” Ezra then invoked a paper co-authored by economist (and now Obama adviser) David Cutler [PDF] that he said demonstrated exactly that. And he’s right. Cutler said that. The paper states very plainly that “increased caloric intake is largely a result of consuming more meals rather than more calories per meal.” But stopping there misses the larger point of the paper.

The paper made a real attempt to pinpoint the underlying cause of the rise of snacking — and it finds two of them. The first is the advance of technology — specifically a set of mass production and preservation techniques that created these snack food and processed food empires in the first place such that “obesity across countries is correlated with access to new food technologies and to processed food.” In the researchers framed it, technology reduced the “time-cost” of food such that it could be put within easy reach at any place and at any time of day.

The result is that we are surrounded by desperately and unrelentingly unhealthy environments. Offices, schools, and colleges are full of junk food vending machines. Convenience stores are everywhere and supermarket aisles are packed with calorically dense and nutrient poor, but technologically advanced, “food systems.” We can’t escape calories so we end up eating more of them (and, for the record, research clearly shows we’re exercising just as much, if not more, than we did in the 70s). If 50 cents will buy a few hundred calories, which on a daily basis is enough to take you from normal to overweight in a surprisingly short amount of time, the obesity epidemic is sort of pre-determined.

But there are societies that have held off the rising tide (although in recent years it’s begun affecting even them, if more slowly than here). And that gets to the other underlying cause Cutler and his co-authors uncovered: government policy. That is to say that the authors looked at what governments did in the face of this flood of new food technologies. And guess what? The Luddites won:

Empirically, countries that are more regulatory and that support traditional agriculture and delivery systems have lower rates of obesity.

We, of course, protect producers, too but since the 60s have focused our supports almost entirely on “feedstocks” for processed food and meat, i.e. commodity crops like corn and soy. Much of Europe protected a far more diverse selection of crops as well as artisanal food products and that turns out to be a benefit in the battle against obesity. And they also acted to control prices on the consumer end to keep “traditional,” i.e. unprocessed, foods more affordable. And it worked.

Americans on the other hand had to experience the full brunt of this technological (and marketing) tidal wave unprotected. And as a result, we failed. So some are now trying to fortify even reconstruct our dessicated food culture with lists of food rules and kitchen literacy, essentially bolstering our collective self-control. This is necessary and important. But societal problems won’t be solved merely by writers and celebrity chefs sternly instructing everyone to “do the right thing.”

In the end, it’s really the government’s job to provide a safe environment for us in which to work, live, and bring up our children. And that’s going to mean figuring out real incentives to eliminate our easy access to nutritionally-deficient calories. Whether that’s through junk food taxes, incentives (not restrictions, right?) for businesses to offer healthy food to workers or to figure out a way to structure work so that families’ only option isn’t popping TV dinners in the microwave or swinging by the drive-thru window on the way home, we’re going to need to allow government to take some responsibility, too. And honestly, given America’s continued insistence that outsourcing our decisions to corporations is the only allowable answer to our problems, it’s a much harder challenge than teaching even the “fattest city in America” how to cook.