Friday, November 7, 2014

Gardens, Grit, and Responsibility

So my wife and I are watching an old episode of Restaurant Impossible on Netflix. It's the one where the host takes on a special mission for the First Lady herself-- fixing up a neighborhood center in one of DC's poor neighborhoods (what is sometimes called a "food desert"-- a neighborhood where there is no real source of decent groceries and fresh food).

It's a heartwarming feel-good episode, and it includes a big plug for Michelle Obama's gardening program. The children at the center created and started working in their own neighborhood garden, which along with the Let's Move initiative, and as the show continued to plug how great it was to grow food and get a connection to where food comes from and to harvest your own food and eat it makes you better connected and this is how we beat back childhood obesity and my wife is becoming increasingly agitated on the couch next to me.

Until finally she says something along the lines of, "Yes. Right. Because it makes sense to put the burden of fixing all this on these people who barely have the resources to get through their regular lives every day. Yes, it makes way more sense to put the burden on them than on the multi-billion dollar corporations that control the food supply and the politicians who help them do it."

It's not that the Let's Move and Eat Good Things From Your Garden and Make Better Eating Choices movements are wrong. I am not one of those people who is going to twist myself into a brain pretzel by trying to find a way to mock the idea that kids should eat less crap; there is nothing remotely objectionable about that idea itself.  But to the cynical eye, it can certainly look like these are convenient distractors that let much more powerful players off the hook. It's like visiting somebody who lives next door to a giant, stinking, unregulated pig feces processing plant and telling them they should really use deodorant and buy some of those christmas tree air freshener things. It's not that those aren't good ideas. It's not that they won't help. But there's a much bigger problem, and we're carefully not talking about it.

The neighborhood is labeled a food desert because there's only a corner store, and that store offers not-very-healthy cheap processed food. That is not some quirky accident, and it's not a twist of the free market. The federal government has made it a good business plan to raise corn and turn it into processed crap. Fast food is cheap because our government, directly and indirectly, subsidizes it, and the government subsidies of bad food might just be related to the revolving door between the offices of the major food conglomerates and the halls of Congress. (Read Fast Food Nation or watch Food Inc)

If we wanted healthy vegetables to be more readily available and cheaper than crappy fattening overprocessed crap, we could do that. But that would come with political (as in "lose a lot of money used to get re-elected") consequences. So it's easier to tell poor kids to grow a garden and exercise more. On the one hand we have a poor kid in DC; on the other hand we have CEO of Monsanto. Which one do you think is in a position to influence the eating patterns of the poor in America?

Let's keep punching a kid in the face, and when he falls down, tell him to get up, plant his feet, and take a strong stance. The advice is not wrong-- it's a good thing to do. But maybe WE COULD STOP PUNCHING HIM IN THE FACE!

We are currently confronting an enormous problem with poverty in this country, a problem that is complicated because it lives at the confluence of many large, powerful forces in our country. Some of those factors can be influenced by the people who are most directly affected; some of those factors are influenced by people who are far removed from the effects of poverty; and some of those factors are influenced by who-the-hell-knows-what. But instead of having the big difficult conversation, we've got a whole bunch of powerful people saying, "Well, let's tell kids to show some grit and get a good education."

It is not not NOT that individual human beings do not have responsibility for their own choices and their own actions. But their power is limited by the choices that are available and the power that they have. Those of us who have more available choices and more power should be likewise considering our responsibilities and choices. That includes me, it includes the CEO's of mega-corporations, and it includes the President of the US along with the bozos in Congress. Perhaps all of us powerful grownups should show some grit and stop sluffing responsibilities off on children.

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