This morning, I stumbled upon an article in the New York Times entitled "New York Plans to Ban Sale of Big Sizes of Sugary Drinks." The gist of the story is that Mayor Bloomberg has proposed a ban on the sale of sugary drinks over 16 oz. in restaurants, fast food places, and movie theaters. Larger sizes would still be available in grocery and convenience stores. Sugary drinks include any drink with added sugar--soft drinks, sweetened tea and coffee, fruit juices which are less than 70% juice. The ban would not prohibit an individual from buying more than one serving, but cup and bottle sizes could not be greater than 16 oz. The ban would not include artificially sweetened drinks, or water.
It's been interesting reading the comments to this article, which are about what you might expect. There's the "no nanny state" contingent versus the "Americans are too darn fat and have no sense of personal responsibility" contingent. On a side note, it does always amaze me how much a certain segment of the population seems to viscerally loathe fat people, seeing them as lazy, morally bankrupt leaches on society who have no right to breathe the same air as fit people. I've never really gotten that--it is perfectly legitimate to be alarmed by the rates of obesity in this country, to look at the increased health care costs as a real social problem and to advocate for good nutrition and exercise. But the level of vitriol one sees in public comments on obesity is just downright scary. Maybe this alarms me because I am a fat person myself, and quite frankly I don't really think I am morally bankrupt and free from self-control. But I digress.
I have been doing a lot of reading lately in preparation for my IFDS seminar in Italy http://www.ciee.org/ifds/seminars/italy/index.aspx. I'm just now making my way through one of three books by Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food movement. The Slow Food movement was begun more or less in reaction to American style fast food making its way into Europe in the 1980s. It has developed into an entire network of people with multiple aims: sustainable agriculture, the preservation of biodiversity, fair prices for small farmers, seasonal and local cuisines, taking the time to enjoy the sensory pleasure of eating and socializing among other goals. I occasionally find myself irritated by the somewhat elitist tone of the writing--how the hell is someone of limited means in an inner-city urban area going to be able to afford organic local produce--and taken back by the naiveté of thinking that a network of small farmers being able to take on agribusiness, but overall I do think that the movement is laudable and important.
Ideally, food should be real. It shouldn't be crap, like so much fast food is. It should have some real nutritional value. It would be great if small farmers could actually make a decent living growing a variety of fruits and vegetables. I would love to eat meat which came from animals who had a reasonably peaceful and humane existence, even if I don't love paying the steeper prices. I am not, however, altogether against fast food in limited doses. Let's face it--if you eat meat, a Big Mac tastes good. Even the French think McDonald's does a pretty great job on their fries. And God help me, I love pop. I always have. I love the way it tastes. I love the bubbles. I love drinking something sweet. I hate coffee, so I love getting the caffeine in a way that tastes good. I can't stand the taste of aspartame, Splenda, and other artificial sweeteners. If I only had a glass of Dr. Pepper every two or three weeks, that would be fine. But for me, that's hard to do.
Which brings us back Mayor Bloomberg. Many of us undoubtedly consume too much sugar, whether it by HFCS or cane sugar. It's absolutely a problem among children as well, since so much sugary processed food and drinks are easily available to them, and the consumption of sugar is partly responsible for the increase in childhood obesity and type II diabetes. I agree that the sizes of soft drinks have been increasing alarmingly over the last two decades. Who actually needs 44 oz. of soda? But is it reasonable or fair to artificially limit what people can buy? Will that fact that someone will need to buy two servings to get 32 oz. of Coke mean that people will start drinking less coke? I don't have a firm opinion about this. In principle, this kind of regulation might be worthwhile in terms of public health. However, it also strikes me as a ridiculous thing to legislate. Really? I can't buy a 20 oz drink to go with my lunch if the vendor is willing to sell it and I'm willing to buy it? It makes far more sense to me to just put a higher tax on anything with a high sugar content, although apparently Bloomberg proposed this and the Feds said no.
I suppose I've nothing to add to the conversation that far brighter people than me haven't already said, but it does make one think. What is the role of government in the food sector, beyond ensuring that what we eat isn't actually tainted of poisonous? Did government cause the ready availability and cheapness of sugary drinks in the first place through farm subsidies for corn crops (resulting in the availability of dirt cheap High Fructose Corn Syrup as a sweetener)? If the government is going to regulate our sugar consumption, should it be at the production end, by ending the subsidies that benefit agribusiness rather than small farmers? Seems like it would be cheaper, and the resulting increase in the cost of sugary drinks may end up curbing consumption.