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Mark Bittman talks Soda Tax, Eating less meat, and a National Cooking Corps

March 31, 2010

Mark Bittman gave a talk on campus today at the Peabody Museum, hosted by the Rudd Center. Bittman compared the harmful effects of the soft-drink industry and soda on America’s health to those of cigarettes and the tobacco industry. A soda tax alone would curb consumption by 15% and raise billions of dollars that could potentially go towards improving school lunches or nutritional education in schools. His presentation was humorous and informative–one slide was a split screen of carrots and Cheetos cheese puffs, two foods which he said, one group of inner city kids had trouble distinguishing between–but Bittman was serious about the fact that Americans need to change they way they eat and view food.

One of the things he has chosen to focus on in his career is to encourage Americans to cook. And, to a certain extent, or at least, by certain standards, he and others have been somewhat successful at getting more families to enjoy meals together at home. Several surveys reported an increase in the number of respondents who say they prepare meals at home, but Bittman raised an interesting point: many of those surveyed considered heating up processed or packaged pre-made meals, like frozen pizza, “cooking.” Bittman jokingly mentioned that he once thought if he could get families to cook rice and beans at least once a week, his goals would be accomplished. Rice and beans were the subject of more serious talk later on when another person in the audience stated that the average American spends about $9 on food per day. A meatless, legume-protein-rich diet would cut that number down to about $6 dollars a day. The gentleman finished by adding that the notion many Americans have that healthy food costs more is not necessarily true. Trading in a few servings of meat for beans every week is just one example of something we can take the initiative to do to improve save money, our health, and the environment.

One of the other ways to improve public nutritional health that was discussed at the talk was to give inner-city bodegas incentives to stock fresh produce or more raw ingredients. Bittman mentioned Pennsylvania’s new-ish policy of subsidizing supermarkets in order to encourage them to open locations in poorer urban areas. I felt that these questions and answers are especially relevant to New Haven, where Bittman spent 25 years of his life, since Shaw’s closed this month.

Prior to this talk, I was skeptical that taxes on junk food, soda, and fast food would have any constructive effect on the American diet. When I brought it up with my dad over winter break, he didn’t think a 1 cent tax would keep him from buying 6-packs of soft drinks. But then again, my dad only buys things on sale, and also said that he wouldn’t buy Coke as frequently if it was full price. Presumably in Bittman’s ideal world, soda would not only be taxed, it would be permanently stricken from the list of “on-sale” items at supermarkets. And, as mentioned, studies have shown that it would reduce the consumption of “useless” liquids by 15%, raise billions of federal and state dollars, and reduce the risks of obesity and diabetes. Like many of the “converted,” I’m disgusted by the fact that a hamburger from a fast-food joint costs as much as a bunch of spinach or a pound of apples–and in America today, most are inclined to pick the hamburger because they see it as a value meal on two counts: calories and time.

In our culture, time is always of the essence. Most people who order take-out do it because they don’t have time to cook, don’t think they have time to cook, or don’t know how to cook. I thought Bittman’s suggestion of the establishment of a national cooking corps paid (presumably by the federal government) to teach working parents how to cook was actually really clever. In addition, in his conception of the cooking corps, the chefs would prepare meals for families where the parent(s) work multiple jobs or long hours. All in all, I thought the talk was really constructive in the sense that Bittman had a lot of good ideas about how food and social justice activists, researchers, and politicians, might all work together to change America’s relationship with and knowledge of the food system.

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 13, 2012 12:49 pm

    I didn’t hear the talk, but Bittman repeatedly claims that cheap corn, soybeans and other junk food ingredients are caused by farm subsidies. He, (and almost everyone else) spreads false info about the farm bill. Farm commodity prices don’t self correct in free markets. They’re inelastic, lacking price responsiveness on both supply and demand sides. This was fixed with market management, balancing supply and demand plus price floors and ceilings, all of which Bittman seems not to know about. (Fruits and vegetables have done better.) We need a farm bill that brings back these policies, instead of subsidies.

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