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Forks, not farm bills, made us fat

We had a discussion here at New Hope the other day on obesity. The point was made with messianic fervor by more than one coworker that U.S. agricultural subsidies are to blame.  It’s the lawmakers’ fault; the farm bill made me fat!

This rang false to me.  For one thing, obesity isn’t just America’s problem.  We may have led the fight to be fat, but people in Europe, Japan and now China are following enthusiastically in our wake.  I don’t know how farmers are subsidized or otherwise protected in those countries, but obviously there is not a common agricultural policy among them. Is the U.S. farm bill to blame for bulbous Britons?

More to the point: Almost everyone was skinny in this country in 1945.  Look at any series of photographs from that time, of soldiers, of civilians, of kids and you’ll see what I mean.  The average family spent, relatively speaking, significantly more on food in 1945 than we do today, and they spent significantly less on gasoline.  Most families had only one car, and many had none.   Cities were organized so that workers lived a maximum 30- 45-minute walk away from the factories in which they were employed.

The skinny population/low automobile usage paradigm was true up until about the early 60s.  And the term “fatcat” was in use, meaning a wealthy person who didn’t have to exert himself because he could pay someone to do all of the everyday stuff for him.

Now food is relatively cheap and we spend the difference on gasoline, more or less. Almost every activity of daily life has been automated or otherwise enabled by machinery or electricity to require less caloric expenditure on the part of the user. Very few Americans walk purely for transportation anymore, and there is very little physical labor involved in everyday life.  It’s possible now to live your entire life without sweating, should you so choose.  All those 10 calories here and 30 calories there that we no longer expend start to add up after a while.

I freely admit the above formulation is simplistic. It doesn’t factor in subsidized fuel prices for farmers or other potential distorting factors. Nor does it take into account the changes in the fortunes of the American middle class. One income doesn’t cut it anymore and a lot of meal planning, shopping and food preparation time went out the window.

Yet blaming the lion’s share on agricultural subsidies is simplistic, too. I’m not arguing that U.S. farm policy is free from contradictions or absurdities.  But when I look in the mirror I see a middle-aged man who’s probably 20-25 lbs. heavier than an equivalent man would have been in 1945.  But farm subsidies didn’t make me hefty; I did that to myself.

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