How Mayor Bloomberg Causes Obesity

Yeah the doctors don’t know, but New York was killing me / Bunch of doctors coming round, they don’t know / That New York is killing me / Yeah I need to go home and take it slow in Jackson, Tennessee -Gil Scott-Heron (2010)

On October 6 Mayor Michael Bloomberg asked the United States Department of Agriculture for permission to enjoin New York City’s 1.7 million food stamp recipients from using their stamps to buy sodas and other sugary drinks.

The request, made with New York State’s assistance, is part of a anti-obesity campaign pursued by the Bloomberg administration that has already included advertisements, greater restrictions on food sold in public schools, and an unsuccessful go at imposing a tax on the sugar drinks.

The City’s petition aims to circumvent restrictions that submarined a previous attempt. In 2004 the state of Minnesota attempted to bar food-stamp recipients from buying junk food. The USDA refused Minnesota permission on the basis the policy was of questionable merit and would “perpetuate the myth” food-stamp recipients made poor decisions.

The City is asking here instead for a waiver of two years of the present regulations.

In a New York Times op-ed arguing for the change, printed the very day Bloomberg’s USDA request was first reported–think about what that timing says of the Times‘s role in city affairs–NYC health commissioner Thomas Farley and New York State health commissioner Richard Daines wrote,

Some 57 percent of adults in New York City and 40 percent of children in New York City public schools are overweight or obese. The numbers are especially high in low-income neighborhoods, where people are most likely to suffer devastating health consequences. One in eight adult city residents now has diabetes, and the disease is nearly twice as common among poorer New Yorkers as it is among wealthier ones. Diabetes rates in low-income neighborhood of East New York, for instance, are four times those in affluent Gramercy Park.

A series of unspoken assumptions underlies the commissioners’ treatment of the problem here. Indeed, they manage to eschew the very notion of causality, scotching the most critical of questions: Why are the poorest neighborhoods suffering the worst of the statistics?

One view places the blame right at the feet of the nomenklatura who run the country and, as locally represented by Mayor Bloomberg, who have proposed the stamp ban.

Rodrick Wallace and Deborah Wallace, urban health ecologists of many decades, proposed in 2005 that US deindustrialization and the racially charged deurbanization of the preceding 30 years, pursued in New York and in cities across the US, ate away at community buffers. The resulting population stresses wrote themselves on the human body,

Our hypothesis…is that large numbers of Americans feel seriously threatened. The obesity epidemic embodies the consequences of public policies: economic insecurity from deindustrialization, social upheaval from destruction of cities by programs of “benign neglect” and “planned shrinkage,” the nation’s wealth increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, and a voting ritual which, as the last US presidential election [2004] shows clearly, does not seem to matter. The US obesity epidemic embodies, in our view, a worsening crisis of democratic locus-of-control which will not be addressed by platitudes about “eating less and exercising more.”

The Wallaces review a literature that traces the mechanisms by which such stress broadcasts from the social to the molecular,

The famous Whitehall Studies of British civil servants found that coronary heart disease and central abdominal fat deposition incidences were strongly associated with the occupational hierarchy. Locus of work control was a major factor in both central abdominal fat deposition and coronary heart disease. Power relations in the workplace imposed a particular structure of stress.

Furthermore, stress which causes sleep deficits shifts metabolism toward fat accumulation and central abdominal deposition. The hypothalamic-pituitaryadrenal (HPA) axis is central to the mechanisms. So the stress involves adrenal reactions to serious threats…

[S]tress literally writes an image of itself onto the body as visceral fat accumulation, first having written an image of itself onto the HPA axis. The phenomenon can be interpreted as the transmission of a structured signal between communicating systems, in a large sense, i.e. from psychosocial structure to HPA.

We have, then, a counter-narrative that not only explains the recent surge in obesity but describes its mechanics step-by-step.

Sodas suck, sure, but Bloomberg’s classist efforts, without a Health Impact Assessment or public input, are more in line with the kind of Foucaultian moralism that permits bossing about poor people this administration, given its record, legitimately fears. In another round of blame-the-victim, it’s poor people’s choices that are presented as the problem, rather than the imposed-upon circumstances in which such choices are made.

Think Guiliani with a Master’s in Public Health.

If Bloomberg really wanted to help New Yorkers’ health beyond blaming them, he’d defend, and refrain from punishing, his city. Charge the State Attorney General with suing Big Ag for knowingly supplying a deadly product, a la cigarette companies.

Work with the poorest New Yorkers. Zone for local organic markets–instead of the next big-box store–with subsidized pricing at both the supply and demand ends. Heal the rift between city and countryside. Collaborate with regional county executives and local communities in town to facilitate the agricultural connections between tri-state organic farms and city markets. Allow WIC recipients to use their benefits to buy organics. Presently they are blocked from purchasing organic milk, cheeses, eggs, baby foods, or infant cereals. That addresses something of the supply side.

On the demand end, stop oppressing your own people, who in response self-medicate with sugar and salt.

End the poverty that necessitates food stamps in the first place. Shut down your police force’s block-by-block racial profiling. Reverse cuts in hard and soft city services the poorest suffer the worst. Block the FIRE industries’ redlining and racially targeted foreclosures. Alleviate the Depression-level unemployment now among the city’s minorities. End the gentrification campaign you have spearheaded, rustling blacks and Latinos out of their homes.

Stop stressing and scaring the poorest New Yorkers into eating for relief.

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One Response to “How Mayor Bloomberg Causes Obesity”

  1. Reblogged this on AgroEcoPeople and commented:
    Simply brilliant.

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