Weekly Newsletter: Our Out-of-Control Diet

Dear Shopper,

I have been watching this commercial about “the government telling us what to buy” — which is being paid for by the soft drink industry, of course, because they are concerned about additional taxes on soft drinks. Something occurred to me that I thought I would throw out for discussion — not with me or our other shoppers necessarily, but for your own dinner-table diners.

When did we in this country begin to feel the need to have store-bought snacks, cookies, crackers and carbonated beverages in our homes all the time? This seems to be a given in our discourse about everything from childhood obesity to tax policy, but why is it a given, and when did it become one? I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, and we rarely had any of those items in our cabinets or pantry at home. As a kid in Cordele, Georgia, it was a great treat to walk to Buck Hunt’s General Store and buy a Coca-Cola or, better yet, a Nehi orange soda (they were bottled in Cordele) with our own money. Or even better to be able to order a Coca-Cola at the drugstore soda fountain — that too was a rare treat.

But we did not have soft drinks at home in the fridge. I remember we also saved bottle caps though I have no idea why — it took so long to accumulate them at home that we thought we had discovered gold when Buck would let us “rob” the little pocket under the bottle opener on the side of the soft drink cooler. We did have ginger ale or Upper 10, one of the original lemon-lime sodas, outside in the utility room that was attached to the newfangled “carport,” but that was for when you threw up, and to this day I cannot drink ginger ale or any similar soda.

And we did not have crackers unless my parents were hosting bridge that week, nor did we ever have store-bought cookies until Nabisco came out with Baronets when we were living in Atlanta — those were great cookies in a package! My mother was not a baker, so we also only had home-baked cookies when we were iced in, which was another rare occurrence in the South. Probably why we looked forward to our trips back to the Shenandoah Valley where Grandmommy would always have frosted sugar cookies in her pantry when we arrived. And then came the cookie dough that you bought and cut in quarters and baked yourself — the best thing about spend-the-night parties!

These were treats, and rare ones at that, and even my own son did not grow up in a house that had snacks and store-bought cookies and candy on hand all the time. No wonder our children are fighting the bulge at such a young age and dealing with the health consequences at way too young an age.

There was a recent article in The Washington Post about a family dealing with a son who developed early-onset diabetes, and the mother was writing about the challenges for the entire family. I was struck more than anything by her account of all of the food they had to get rid of — and stop shopping for — so that the son with diabetes would not be tempted. Why does it take a medical emergency to get us to do the right thing for our children? I didn’t mean to end up here again, but until we start putting food in its proper perspective, the fact that it is indeed cheaper than medicine is never going to have much traction in these discussions. As long as it’s a given that our homes are junk-food dispensers, nothing will change.

After working these past few months on the bill to encourage Virginia school systems to buy local as part of buying and serving healthier food to our children, I am learning why this is such an uphill battle. Our schools are feeding our children pretty much the same calorie-crammed foods that they eat at home, so where is the incentive to be incensed? Advocating for better foods in our schools will expose us all to what is in our own home kitchens. And who is ready to withstand that kind of scrutiny? Think about it — maybe for our own health we have to submit to those higher taxes on soft drinks for our own good. Maybe food needs to become as expensive as medicine to have the intended effect. It would still be better to be healthy.

See you at the market!