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An unHappy Meal: how government spending forced reliance on fast food

Published by USC Bedrosian Center on

by Olivia Olson

Despite being one of the richest, most resource-dense, and innovative countries on the globe, the United States “remains the most obese country in the world.” Given that obesity is an epidemic that disproportionately affects those of lower socioeconomic status, public opinion often characterizes it as a byproduct of laziness, poor decision-making, and lack of self-control.

However, this widespread mischaracterization misses the point. In reality, those living in poverty are among the victims of a system that renders fast food and other such unhealthy products the only viable options for low-income citizens. From commodity crop subsidies, to federal programs that place fast food in the heart of urban areas, obesity is not “a moral lapse of a brain chemical but the effect of poverty.

The federal government has long vocalized the desire for American health–former First Lady Michelle Obama centered her Let’s Move! campaign on combating childhood obesity, health care reform includes provisions on nutrition information, and FDA meal recommendations encourage “people [to] fill half their plates with fruits and vegetables to help prevent obesity.”

Yet in spite of these actions, the federal government still plays a large role in fostering and perpetuating this nation’s health crisis. Agricultural subsidies allocate the “vast majority” of federal funding to “commodity crops that are processed into many of the foods that are linked to the obesity crisis”; this system drives down the prices of fast food items, leaving fresh produce more expensive and less accessible to low-income areas.

While middle class families may enjoy the convenience of a quick and cheap meal every once in a while, fast food is “one of the country’s biggest public health menaces” for those who don’t have the resources to make alternative food choices. Those with “annual incomes of less than $30,000 obtain 17 percent of their calories from fast food,” leading to disproportionate instances of “obesity, diabetes, and heart disease” in low-income areas.

The SBA, in an attempt to prop up poorer neighborhoods, made obesity-inducing fast food one of the only practical options in low-income areas. Congress signed the Small Business Act of 1953, which created the Small Business Administration (SBA), a government program designed to “aid, counsel, assist and protect…the interest of small business concerns.”

The SBA initially provided loans to support small businesses, but when the Equal Opportunity Loan (EOL) was added to SBA in 1966, “the SBA was charged with an additional task of assisting small business in economically depressed urban and rural communities across America.

In order to “assist communities with high unemployment,” individually owned fast food restaurants became classified as small businesses. This led to the explosion of fast food chains in low-income areas: “[b]y the spring of 1979, the agency had approved 225 individual loans and $29.6 million work of loan transactions to McDonald’s alone; similarly, Burger King had received $24 million in SBA loan guarantees and loans by 1981.” In a well-intentioned attempt to bolster the nation’s economic well-being, the federal government promoted fast food in low-income areas, contributing largely to the obesity epidemic.

The pervasiveness of fast food restaurants in low-income areas is particularly dangerous because poorer citizens are “more dependent on their immediate environs for meals.” They are less likely to have cars or schedules that permit them to travel further for healthy alternatives. Additionally, given that fast food proliferation drives out other food options like supermarkets and restaurants, alternatives are less readily available. A 2011 study concluded that “low-income men who lived within 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) of fast food chain restaurants consumed fast food [significantly] more frequently than those who did not.

The connection between poverty, obesity, and fast food is undeniable. However, in a country built on the significance of personal autonomy and liberty–and especially since fast food restaurants are privately owned businesses–it is controversial to encourage the government to implement policies to prevent people from choosing to eat fast food.

Opponents of taxes on unhealthy products or proposed limitations on fast food marketing are quick to tout their constitutional right to gorge on as many Big Macs as they desire. However, for the majority, fast food consumption isn’t a triumph of personal freedom, but a reflection of extremely limited options fostered by government action.

Bedrosian Center