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The Price of Cheap Food

Equating junk food to tobacco, HBO is cruising for a food fight. “The Weight of the Nation,” the cable network’s special report on obesity in America, pummels the food industry with the statistics and science necessary to justify an overhaul of a food system the producers call “hostile to healthy eating.”

The unanswered question is whether America has the political will to tackle what the series points to as the root of the crisis: outdated federal supports for cheap junk food that keep the fresh, unprocessed foods vital to good health relatively expensive and out of reach.

When an average of $9 billion in federal subsidies has been doled out each of the last five years to growers of commodity crops, sugary sodas end up cheaper than bottled water yet provide manufacturers with an average 90 percent profit margin. The price of fresh fruits and vegetables, in contrast, soars as farmers struggle to sustain 10 percent margins, according to the series.

HBO, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Institutes of Health fight bare-knuckled. Don’t expect the entertaining storytelling and colorful characters that made Robert Kenner’s “Food, Inc.” a box-office hit. A nearly overwhelming body of fresh research and scientific understanding support HBO’s call for changing not only what Americans eat, but also how we live. Doctors, public health officials and progressive politicians complete each other’s sentences as they detail the causes and consequences of America’s obesity crisis.

  • More than two-thirds of U.S. adults and one-third of American children are overweight or obese, a weight-gain trend that started in the early 1980s.
  • By 2030, half of the nation’s adults are projected to be obese.
  • Obesity is now the most serious threat to the health of American people.
  • Obesity-related health care costs about $147 billion annually.
  • Soaring obesity rates among children will probably make this generation the first in history to have a shorter life span than their parents.

The disconnect between people suffering from failed governmental programs and the powerful financial incentives to maintain the status quo makes the four-part “Weight of the Nation,” debuting on HBO on May 14, a slap in the face to complacency about the true cost of cheap food.

“This is preventable,” says Jack Shonkoff, director of Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child. “This is not one of those unfortunate acts of nature that we just have to accept as reality.”

But it is not a fight the average consumer can win alone. Obesity is not, as commonly thought, simply a matter of lifestyle and personal choice. “We need companies to step up, to reformulate their products, to change their marketing practices and to make healthy options available in restaurants,” says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The lone food industry representative in the series states the obvious. “Food companies are trying to sell more today than they did yesterday. And if they don’t, then they’re not considered successful,” says Philip Marineau, former president of the Quaker Oats Company, Pepsi-Cola North America. “If we are going to be successful in reducing obesity, people are going to consume less. And that’s the conundrum.”

In a glaring failure, HBO neglects to include or explain the absence of representatives from Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, ConAgra and Monsanto — the outsized giants of the American food system — or McDonald’s, Burger King and the rest of the fast-food pyramid.

After the Los Angeles premiere of “Weight of the Nation,” I moderated a panel discussion of the film. Social justice was the uppermost concern of the participants. The problem, they said, is not just the lack of access to and the high cost of healthy, fresh food. Rather it is the glorification of over-consumption even as the people who succumb to the incessant marketing of junk food become marginalized as obese. How can people ignore $4 billion in fast-food industry ads a year?

Members of the panel included Dr. Jonathan E. Fielding, director of Los Angeles County Department of Public Health; Lark Galloway-Gilliam, executive director for Community Health Councils, Inc., a Los Angeles-based health promotion, advocacy and policy organization; Dr. America Bracho, executive director and founder of Latino Health Access, a center for health promotion and disease prevention in Santa Ana, Calif.; and Kimberly Reece, a family medicine physician with Kaiser Permanente, one of the documentary’s sponsoring organizations.

Edited highlights of that discussion can be viewed in the attached video.

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Two of the one-hour special reports debut Monday, May 14 (8 p.m. Eastern and Pacific time, 7 p.m. Central), followed Tuesday, May 15, by the last two special reports, airing those same hours.

Corie Brown, the co-founder and general manager of Zester Daily, is an award-winning food writer at work on a book about climate change and wine.

Image: Illustration for HBO’s “Weight of the Nation” documentary series on obesity. Credit: Screen capture via

Corie Brown, the co-founder and general manager of Zester Daily, is an award-winning food and wine writer. "Start Your Own Microbrewery, Distillery, or Cidery," a book she wrote with reporting from Zester Daily's network of contributors, was released by Entrepreneur Books in June 2015.