Several years ago, while unloading groceries, my son picked up a head of cauliflower and asked, “What’s this?” For the record, no one ever pointed to boxed macaroni and cheese and asked about the contents. I’m embarrassed to admit the mac and cheese was a staple around our house for too long.
Sometimes, lessons in parenting come in subtle but significant moments. “What is cauliflower?” was the moment I realized I hadn’t done enough to incorporate a variety of fruits and vegetables into our family’s diet.
I’d been under the misguided impression that children simply wouldn’t eat Brussels sprouts or edamame or hummus. When I started buying those things, sure enough I proved myself wrong. Children will eat anything, especially if they’re hungry.
Much attention now is focused on the eating habits of American children, thanks in large measure to Michelle Obama‘s campaign to raise awareness of the serious problem of childhood obesity. I applaud her interest in the issue, as she’s using her platform to draw attention to a crucial public health problem.
Unfortunately, enthusiasm for Mrs. Obama‘s obesity agenda is causing some folks to apply the typical, knee-jerk government solutions to a problem that government cannot solve. It’s also ironic because our government is even more bloated than our citizenry.
For example, states and localities are hot for an excise tax on sugary sodas as a means to discourage their consumption, even though the benefits of such a tax are theoretical at best. According to economic research from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, “Taxes on sugar-sweetened soft drinks do not necessarily advance the overall public interest, may be regressive in nature, and hardly ever work as intended.”
Come to think of it, that never stopped governments from raising taxes before, so I guess it won’t stop a punitive soda tax.
Since we know that obesity represents a serious public health issue, already accounting for at least 10 percent of health care spending (and slated to climb to as much as 30 percent), we clearly need to put ourselves on a diet. Get to know our societal head of cauliflower, as it were.
But in a free-market economy, that means government needs to get out of the way and, rather than attempt to regulate our personal behavior, create incentives for businesses to make money by promoting healthier lifestyles.
For example, Mrs. Obama has noted the problem of “food deserts” — urban and rural areas without adequate fresh-food outlets. Rather than impose new or larger taxes to fund subsidies of “desert grocers,” we ought to give tax breaks to grocers that set up shop in these areas. If there’s a role for government, it’s to keep neighborhoods safe for businesses to conduct commerce.
Creative approaches also include tax benefits for grocers that install demonstration facilities to teach shoppers how to cook fresh food and for companies that partner with schools to provide healthy, fresh food for children’s meals.
If there’s a way to make money by fighting obesity, corporate America ultimately will do it. This approach helps the economy a whole lot more than soda taxes that governments will misappropriate, to be sure.
Americans are fortunate that someone is leading the charge to improve our nation’s health. It’s British chef Jamie Oliver. The 2010 recipient of the TED Prize for innovation, Mr. Oliver says we will overcome our national weight problem by rebooting our approach to food, learning and sharing a love of healthy food preparation, and applying some simple and inexpensive principles.
He also believes that as America’s waistline goes, so goes the world’s.
Check out his TED acceptance speech for the best 20 minutes you’ll ever find on the issue of obesity in the U.S.