October 17, 2019

Dig In | The Health Care Debate Forgets Health

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Our role in the dining section is to tell stories about food. Whether it be through a restaurant review, a personal narrative or coverage of a special event, we want to get you thinking about how food impacts us as individuals and as a society. That is why sitting through four Democratic presidential debates — in which the Democrats spent more than 90 minutes talking about health care — and not hearing any of the candidates speak about health itself was disheartening.

The problem with the health care debate is that we are talking about how to fund the rising costs (which have increased twelvefold — from $500 to $6,000 — between 1950 and today) instead of talking about why costs keep rising and how to reverse them.

Costs are rising because America is unhealthy. We are spending more time in hospitals, we are spending less active, outdoor time with our family and we are taking more prescribed drugs for cases of hypertension, high blood pressure, and osteoporosis.

Today, the total impact of obesity and its related complications on the United States’ economic output has been estimated at between 4 percent and 8 percent of gross domestic product. This is roughly the same expenditure as the 2018 defense budget ($643 billion) and Medicare ($588 billion).

According to new data from the Centers for Disease Control, the obesity epidemic is getting exponentially worse. Today, around four out of ten adults are obese; For children, it’s nearly two out of 10. Most two-year-olds today will develop obesity by age 35, according to a recent projection from Harvard University.

This is pretty dismal stuff. How did we get here? The first part is physical inactivity. Youth and young adults around the world are less aerobically fit (read: we are opting to take the TCAT rather than walk up Libe Slope) than our parents were as kids, a decline that could be setting us up for serious health problems once we’ve grown up. The Guardian reported on a survey that found that we spend half the time our parents did outside. We also take 90 seconds longer to run a mile than our parents did 30 years ago, according to data from 28 countries. Our aerobic fitness has declined by five percent since 1975.

The second part is diet. In the past 40 years, the commercialization of food has brought us fast food and junk food. Here at Cornell, Terrace and Trillium sell easy grab-and-go fries and pizzas. These foods are filled with saturated fat, cholesterol and processed carbohydrates, all of which slow people down and fatten people up. Around $4.6 billion is spent on all advertising by fast food restaurants each year. Just like Big Tobacco, these companies are putting profit over people, selling products that jeopardize personal health and drive up health care costs for America.

What Can Government Do?

First, our government can reform the Farm Bill, which is the primary agricultural and food policy tool of the federal government. It gives multinational food manufacturing companies such as Kellogg’s billions of dollars in subsidies to process commodity crops, which they turn into high fructose corn syrup. This allows them to produce junk food at artificially low costs. It’s the same case with fast food companies, which use the crops to feed livestock. This is a main reason why 41 percent of the contiguous U.S. is used by livestock, which also has major implications on the climate crisis. The Farm Bill is a classic example of client politics, a type of politics when an organized minority or interest group benefits at the expense of the public. We need to make our agricultural subsidy system work for American families. Right now, it is failing them.

Second, the U.S. Congress should fund healthy schools. We need to set stricter nutritional guidelines by including maximum fat content per meal, mandating a ratio of fresh fruits and vegetables to other foods and removing processed foods altogether. A high school group in Chicago is currently fighting their district for better food. One of the students said, “It’s supposed to be the place where students get the best healthy lunches like salads, sandwiches, fresh fruits, etc. Instead they give some gross, unhealthy food.”

Jack Waxman / Sun Contributor

Jack Waxman / Sun Contributor

Although the health care debate forgets health, we don’t have to. We owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to get more exercise by running with friends, playing intramural sports or going to the gym. We also could eat cleaner by swapping Cheez-Its for an Ithaca-grown apple, moving plants to the center of the plate and drinking water during meals. If we all make these individual choices in our lives, then we will live longer, healthier and happier lives and we will have around $600 billion more to spend on the issues that matter most.


Jack Waxman is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Dig In runs every other week this semester.