Last week I attended the “Food: Pleasure, Policy, and Public Health” lecture, one of many events part of this year’s International Festival of Arts & Ideas in New Haven, Connecticut. The Rudd Center’s Director, Kelly Brownell, spoke alongside Chantal Line Carpentier, United Nations Sustainable Development Officer and 2006 Yale World Fellow, and Josh Viertel, President of Slow Food USA and former Co-Director of the Yale Sustainable Food Project.
Josh’s introduction was particularly striking. “When FDR took office one in three children in the United States was malnourished. Today, Obama has inherited an America in which one in three children is overweight or obese.”
In drawing this seemingly sharp contrast, Josh was able to discuss how dramatically our food habits and agricultural practices have changed in the past 80 years. Indeed, there have been significant changes on a global scale, yet the statistic remains: One in three children in the United States is malnourished.
The way we use language shapes how we think about issues. For many, the word “malnourished” evokes images of sickly, starving children, but it’s also an appropriate term to use when referring to overweight and obesity.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines malnutrition as “nutrition which is not adequate to maintain good health, whether through insufficient or excessive intake of food, lack of essential dietary components, or (rarely) malabsorption; a condition of poor health resulting from this.”
If we thought of children as malnourished rather than simply overweight or obese, perhaps the impetus to improve our eating habits would be stronger. Obesogenic diets – think highly processed foods high in salt, sugar, and saturated fat – supply more than enough calories for sustenance, but “lack essential dietary components” like vitamins, nutrients, antioxidants, and fiber necessary to “maintain good health.”
The recent revival of the victory garden stems, in part, from the notion that America needs to end malnutrition. Not only do all children in this wealthy nation deserve some modica of happiness and health, we cannot afford the costs associated with malnutrition and its co-morbidities like type II diabetes, heart disease, cancers, and psychosocial health issues.
Michelle Obama planted a garden on the White House lawn this year, like Eleanor Roosevelt before her. The First Lady has recognized the need to address malnourishment in the American population. She champions better nutrition standards for school breakfast and lunch programs, and encourages Americans to become more physically active. Michelle Obama is making eating well a more mainstream concept, and more accessible to those in need.
Malnourished children, just like food policies, are global in nature. At the “Food” lecture, each presenter shed light on a different aspect of food and some of the issues that surround it – like commodities market speculation and world food security, industrial farming and environmental damage, and food marketing’s role in childhood malnutrition.
Far from apocalyptic, the lecture was honest but hopeful. More people are becoming interested in where their food comes from, and not just Michael Pollan fans. Last year, Wal-Mart stopped selling milk with rBGH, and this was not some self-righteous stand – it was in response to the market. Sustainable agriculture could become so mainstream that we no longer have to label it so. It will just be the norm.
Slowly but surely we’re making progress. Hopefully in another 80 years time we’ll no longer be able to say one in three children is malnourished.