Sweet Nothings

We were roaming the stores on Saturday when a sweet, well-meaning salesperson handed each of my kids animal crackers in a box that looked like a circus car, complete with a little white handle top. They were overjoyed and walking around, swinging their boxes of cookies, and talking about which animal they would eat first. We sat down a few minutes later to drink some coffee and tea. My daughter handed me her box, I slid it open, and gave her a cookie. Did the same for my boy.

“You don’t want to do that.” Says my husband.

“Why?”

“Look at the ingredients.”

And there were my old nemeses: No. 2: High Fructose Corn Syrup and No. 6: Partially Hydrogenated Cottonseed Oil.

I said to my kids: “I’m sorry but that one cookie’s going to have to be it.”

“Why mommy?”

“Because it has yucky ingredients that over the long term can make you sick.”

“Mommy, if they know kids eat these cookies, then why do they put yucky ingredients in them?” said my five year old.

There you go. If a five year old can point out the disconnect here, why can’t the food manufacturers? We all know why: MONEY.

Key disclosure: My household went fully militant about food after I had a health crisis in 2007. And by crisis, I mean CRISIS. The kind you don’t want to have with a one- and three-year-old in the house who need their mamas for a long time to come. And so, with a few exceptions at birthday parties, holidays and the like, no high fructose corn syrup, no trans fats, and low sugar and white flour. Mostly fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish. Organic if it’s affordable.

I’m trying to balance letting my kids be ‘normal’ children who love to eat sweets and enjoy ice cream and cookies once in while with eating patterns that become habits that last a lifetime. My own parents’ permissiveness about cakes, cookies and candy translated into a lifelong sugar addiction which I was only able to kick when I was looking death in the face. And even now I struggle with those cravings daily.

Remember all the hoopla about the trans fats in Oreos a few years back? Well, have you checked the labels of your average candy bars lately? It’s highly likely that the ingredients will include some form of corn syrup and/or partially hydrogenated oils, artificial flavoring and coloring. (Ditto for some of the top brands of yogurt marketed directly to children. And don’t get me started on Nutrasweet.) Who are the primary consumers of these crap-laden foods? Children, of course! 

Which one of our stomachs didn’t turn when the research came out last year about the far higher prevalence of obesity among Black and Hispanic children? And that on the whole, obese children will have more and longer hospital stays? My oncologist friend once told me that the medical community is now seeing diseases among children that they only used to see in the elderly a few decades ago. And that blame for these illnesses can be laid squarely at the door of what our children are eating and being exposed to in their environment. 

Why wouldn’t manufacturers want the BEST stuff for our children? Because it translates into less dollars. Why does it ALWAYS have to be about dollars? (Am I starting to sound naive? Trust me, it’s one of my best qualities.)

How do we change this aspect of our society? If you have any ideas, let me know. For now, my efforts are mostly on the homefront.

Love Always.

22 thoughts on “Sweet Nothings

  1. Great post! We’re militant. too! The first thing we do whenever picking up a new product in the store is to turn it over over and read the ingredients. But the manufacturers (and the FDA, for that matter!) are so sneaky! The label will say “zero trans fat,” but “partially hydrogenated oil” is listed in the ingredients. The FDA will permit the “zero trans fat” label if the amount is under a specific amount. But if you have enough of those “zero trans fat” cookies, eventually you will have gotten your full serving of partially hydrogenated oil.

    It’s crazy. But talking (bloggin!) about this is a great way to start. Teaching our kids to think of everything they put into their bodies as a drug is another great way. Would you take medicine without being clear on how it’s going to affect you? If not, you should be clear on how this piece of food will affect you, too. It’s hard; we want to raise kids who have a healthy relationship with food (and, hopefully, a preference for fresh, whole foods), but we’re at war with the manufacturers…

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    1. Yes, ORJ! And it doesn’t help that there is so much intentional misinformation out there. Did you ever see the corn syrup commercials? Here’s the one I saw, featuring an African American woman advocating corn syrup: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EEbRxTOyGf0. I was on the war path after I saw this last year. It is in *their* interest to confuse people. If you overwhelm folks, they check out. In my opinion, it’s an evil approach to keeping your cash flow.

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      1. Oh, my–the corn syrup commercials KILL me! The first time I saw one, my mouth dropped open. I thought to myself: “wow; they’ve officially gone from defensive, to offensive.” It’s so sad.

        It’s interesting that you call it an “evil approach to keeping your cash flow.” I’ve had conversations with family members who insist the gov’t is hatching an evil plot to destroy people of color, through things like introducing crack into black communities. But those same people look at me blankly when I suggest that the real harm is not some evil gov’t conspiracy, but rather their ignorance about what they’re putting in their mouths.

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  2. I am so excited when I find someone who has made the choice to pay attention to the ingredients in our food! You would think that the responsibility of nourishing our children would wake us up to the fact that not many things are more important than the quality of the food we eat. However, most people still aren’t taking hydrogenated oils and high fructose corn syrup, among other chemicals and refined ingredients seriously. These chemicals affect our mood negatively and contribute to learning and behavioral disorders, not to mention obesity, diabetes, and the list goes on. I changed careers and went back to school to get training on how to educate and counsel families about this topic. I just recently opened a wellness center in DC and my mission is to educate the community and form healthy connections. By spreading the word and continuing to talk, people will eventually wake up to the reality of the situation and take self-care into their own hands rather than leaving it up to the food industries and the government. When people begin to realize the sacredness of their bodies and how a healthy body is crucial to having a healthy mind and spirit, then real change will be made. Having a baby reminds us of this sacredness, but spreading the word can do wonders too. Feel free to check out http://www.integrativenutrition.com on how to effectively spread the word and create change.

    Thank you for caring so much for yourself and your baby. If more people did the same, the world would be a better place, valuing life over money.

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  3. You all make very good points, but there still remains the fact that 1) healthy foods and even supermarkets are becoming rare sightings in many low-income neighborhoods and 2) eating fresh, non-processed whole foods is more time consuming and difficult for busy parents than non fresh processed foods. Now I’m a vegatarian, and have been for many years, and I shop at Whole Foods pretty much exclusively. But I also spend almost $200 a week feeding my family of four, which means we sacrifice a whole lot of other stuff and/or go into debt trying to eat healthy. Everybody can’t make that choice. So while I agree that we all do need to take our health into our own hands, I do think that we also need to impress upon our governments the social stratification that makes simply eating well as class issue.

    When I was a child, and we didn’t have a car, we could at least walk to a supermarket and walk home with our groceries in one of those grocery carts. Now, in my working-class neighborhood in Philly, there is no grocery store in walking distance. What do you get at the corner store? Certainly not fresh, organic produce.

    And I’ll be honest – my kids eat something that was once frozen every day. Chicken nuggets, french fries, etc. I agree, those things do not contain high fructose corn syrup or partially hydrogenated oil, but they would if I didn’t spend twice as much for these convenience foods as other folks with my limited time have to. I do think you can let your kids have some “bad” stuff every now and again, but then again I’m not a doctor, and who knows, my myriad of health issues might be due to the MSG and HFCS and PHO thatI’ve ingested during my life…

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  4. Toya–I have to challenge your second point. Eating fresh non-processed food does not necessarily take more time than non-fresh processed food; it just takes a little more thought, and sometimes a change in tastes. It’s pretty quick to warm up some brown rice we cooked over the weekend, steam some fresh spinach, and pop some fish we cooked earlier in the oven. It’d be even quicker if we had a microwave (which we’ve made a conscious choice not to have). It could only be quicker if we purchased take-out, but even there, studies have shown that the difference in prep time is marginal (and the impact on wallets significant!).

    And I don’t agree that Whole Foods is that much more expensive. We also shop exclusively at Whole Foods, and have found that for specialty items, yes–Whole Foods is more expensive. But for fish, fresh fruits, and fresh vegetables, it costs the same as at a traditional supermarket. In fact, produce is often MORE expensive in poorer neighborhoods, for inferior quality foods, as a result of captive markets.

    I wouldn’t say it’s a class issue; I’d say it’s an education issue (which may very well be masking class issues). No matter what your income level, there is usually a better choice within your price range if you know better.

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  5. None of those things – cooking brown rice, steaming spinach, or cooking fish – is quicker than putting chicken nuggets and french fries in the oven (and I don’t eat fish). And thought is time! The time it takes to plan out these things, when you get home at 5pm and the kids are starving – the frozen stuff is quick and furthermore, it’s stuff you know they’ll eat.

    Your child is small now, so she doesn’t want them, but snacks cost more at Whole Foods, as does cereal, both hot and cold. If you buy organic, as we do because of allergies and such, those fruits and veggies most certainly do cost more. Same with milk, if you don’t drink dairy, and whole grain pastas. And juice – 100% juice is more expensive than non! Crazy, but true.

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  6. Hmmmmm. It’s true that organic is more expensive; I think we’ve always tried to buy organic, even before Whole Foods, and so didn’t notice the difference. But even non-organic fresh food is better than no fresh food at all, and the reason people in our communities don’t buy them is not always because of price.

    As for prep time–I steam the spinach, and warm up the rice (both on the stove) in less time than it takes to warm up something in the oven; less than 5 minutes. And warming up the fish in the oven is the same as warming up chicken nuggets or french fries.

    I will admit that to have rice and fish pre-cooked so that they can merely be warmed up takes a little extra time: we dedicate about 1 hour to that on the weekend (most of the hour is the cooking phase; the fish in the oven, the rice on the stove; in terms of actual prep, it’s about 10 minutes to prep it, and then maybe another 5 minutes after it’s cooked to transfer it to storage containers for the week). I’m not dismissing the cost, however, of one hour; it may indeed be time I don’t have as the baby gets older. I’ve been around a few toddlers in the last few weeks, and have been shocked at the impossibility of getting anything done because of the need to follow them around constantly.

    –ORJ

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  7. We are very ingredient conscious as well and try to eat fresh as often as possible. I think both of you systas make good points about things being more expensive and not necessarily accessible…but the true barrier is education. I see this similar to why people perm their hair. It is not easier to do permed hair..but that is what/how your mama, sister, hair dresser know how to do…so that is what you do. Folks have no idea how to make raw dishes, how to cook veggies that taste good without fatback or smoked meat…etc. I also agree that taste is important. When people say my child won’t eat “x,y,z” that says that they haven’t exposed them and haven’t encouraged them to explore with food. We have to be able to share information without judgement. We have to target our friends and systas and share recipes, bring dishes. I cook a few Senegalese dishes that taste and smell quite differently than most american food. I purposely and consistently bring this food to my neighbor’s daughters to expose them to something different that they once turned their nose up at because it “smelled funny”….

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  8. First, let me say that you all make me feel like such a slacker of a mother. When my children were babies we all ate healthier because I chose to puree their food. This meant that my hubby and I had to eat healthier because I was not going to feed them crap.

    I also recognize that I have very little control over what they eat in daycare and school. I knew it was my responsibility to teach them good eating habits. People are amazed when we go out and they see my kids eating salad like others eat chicken nuggets (don’t get me wrong, they eat those too). But, we also wanted them to prefer fresh foods over processed.

    As for the diligence, or to use a reoccurring word, militant approach in assuring healthier foods are purchased and in the home, I recognize several components here. As Latoya pointed out above, eating organic and fresh foods requires addressing the issue of class. In watching “Big Happy Family” on TLC a few weeks ago (a show about an obese black family of 4), when the father told the mother that he was not going to eat the fresh spinach in her hand because spinach is supposed to come out of a can, I realized it is an educational issue as well. There are several studies that identify class based on the foods people eat. For instance, those who eat more exotic foods (i.e. sushi, escargot, and even organically grown food) are identified as upper class. Why? The answer is simple. Those who do not eat healthy or exotic foods simply cannot afford to do so.

    We are fortunate area that has plenty of farms. So, not only do my kids love going to the farmer’s market. They also love going to the farms and picking fresh fruits and vegetables.

    Now remember that I am a slacker mom. So, we have a “snack cabinet” that is one of the smaller cabinets in our kitchen that’s kid level. They know that they cannot go in it whenever they like. We used to keep it kiddie locked. Now they are allowed to go into it each evening after dinner. It works for us.

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  9. This is a topic that is near and dear to my heart and I feel compelled to share my thoughts and feelings about the importance of healthy food practices at home.

    First off, food is expensive and it will continue to get more and more expensive as natural resources like water become limited. We need to understand food and its benefits and learn how a little food can go a long way. In this country, Madison Avenue has lulled us into the belief that bigger is better. Even with food we are lead to believe that that our plates must be full with large portions or big burgers, large sodas, etc. What is true is that we really are doing ourselves a great disservice by eating so much food! We need to re-think how we see food and eat not for pleasure but for NOURISHMENT! We need to educate ourselves on how to prepare simple foods at home like soups, legumes, and vegetables, lots of vegetables! I have to say that I look forward to a plate of vegetables prepared in different ways. Or a juicy apple, well balance between sweet and tart. Think beans and grains. This is an inexpensive way to feed and nourish yourself and your family and there are plenty, plenty to choose from. The farmer’s market is a great resource for learning about seasonal fruits and vegetables and can be a great family outing. Most communities have one within or nearby.

    I could stand on this soap box forever espousing my strong beliefs on this subject, but I won’t. I will close by saying that this is important. We have a responsibility to make smart choices and learn how to do this thing better. Make small steps and minimize making excuses–these can be very expensive! I say get back in your kitchens, take a cooking class or go to a food lecture in your community and learn. Learn how to do this thing better and you will see the results in yourself and in your children.

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  10. But Mary, why should we not eat for pleasure? Food that’s good for you shouldn’t taste good going down?

    I don’t disagree with anything anyone is saying about eating well and making it a priority. I am only saying that when you restraints – time, money, education – it is not easy, and I don’t think we can judge our fellow parents for making the choices they do. With two little kids under the age of four, working on two degrees, having chronic pain, and being chronically tired, putting frozen things in the oven and frozen veggies on the stove is SO easy and convenient. IF it was less expensive AND took less time/thought, people would do it. But its not.

    A great business idea would be to come up with ways to reduce the cost of good-for-you foods and revolutionize technology to make preparation of those foods easier and quicker. Until then, access to those foods will continue to be for the well-to-do and educational elite.

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    1. I agree; food can’t just be about nourishment. It’s a social activity, starting from the first time our mothers put us to their breasts. And it should taste good, because otherwise, what’s the point? Besides, healthy eating–or any kind of eating–is not sustainable if it tastes bad.

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  11. We’ll have to agree to disagree on how long it takes to prepare fresh food, ‘cuz I’m just not seeing the huge time difference…

    I do want to challenge the idea, however, that good food should be less expensive. Americans, in particular, are caught up in the idea that we should have high-quality food for cheap. Good food takes time and energy to cultivate, especially if we want it done in ways that are good to our planet. Although I do not agree that you should only have access to high-quality fresh foods if you have money, I don’t necessarily think that that sort of food should be inexpensive. Rather, I would look for ways to subsidize the cost of healthy foods for people who can’t afford it.

    We think nothing of spending a lot of money on a pair of shoes, a purse, or a piece of electronic equipment, because it was “good quality; it’ll last us a long time; what’s the point of buying cheap only to replace it again.” And, unfortunately, a lot of people of lesser means WILL invest in other high-quality items, rather than spend it on high-quality food. I think costs is just an excuse that prevents us from getting down to the hard work of making the food available to everyone, and helping everyone appreciate the value of the food.

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  12. “And I don’t agree that Whole Foods is that much more expensive.”
    Huh?
    Ok, hood mama checking in! LOL
    I got a cup of soup from Whole Foods a few months ago. It was $9.08.
    I’ve been in Whole Foods twice in my LIFE. Two times to know that it is almost triple what I spend at my local supermarket.

    LaToya, the first paragraph from yuor first response sums it up entirely. There is a serious food/health apartheid thing going on in our country. There is NO REASON healthy foods should not be as readily available in poorer neighborhoods as they are in wealthier neighborhoods. And there is NO reason people should have to pay so much more to eat healthier.

    “When people say my child won’t eat “x,y,z” that says that they haven’t exposed them and haven’t encouraged them to explore with food.”

    This is not always true. I know Garvey won’t eat ketchup because the many times I’ve offered him ketchup, he tastes it and doesn’t like it. I offer him a lot of things, he is just picky. I agree, though, that many parents dont expoe their children to healthier eating practices and like you said about perms, its just how it is in their families.

    Education is the KEY to making healthier food choices. However, access and affordability are the other primary factors. I work in an area where there is a fresh grocery store for a 5 block radius. Nothing but bodegas, fried chicken and chinese spots. And, of course, I work across the street from a large housing project development. Coincidence? I think not.

    Its all apart of Massey’s American Apatheid.

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    1. Benee, you prove my point: you don’t go into Whole Foods to buy a cup of soup unless you want to pay more. Their specialty items are ALWAYS more. But it is debatable as to whether more basic items are necessarily more expensive; it depends on what you’re buying, and where.

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  13. “I do want to challenge the idea, however, that good food should be less expensive. Americans, in particular, are caught up in the idea that we should have high-quality food for cheap. Good food takes time and energy to cultivate, especially if we want it done in ways that are good to our planet. Although I do not agree that you should only have access to high-quality fresh foods if you have money, I don’t necessarily think that that sort of food should be inexpensive. Rather, I would look for ways to subsidize the cost of healthy foods for people who can’t afford it. ”

    Healthy food shouldnt be inexpensive? I have to disagree. Food should be free. It is a necessity of life, as is water, and air. We dont pay for air so why do we pay for food and water? Its the most insane idea humanity has ever come up with.

    Food stamps (EBT cards) are now being accepted at more fresh grocers and farmer’s markets. That’s excellent. However, many of these markets are not located closer to where the poor people who need them can access them. Most poor people have to rely on public transportation, so can you imagine traveling miles and miles to get to the nearest fresh market, just to use your EBT card on a few items, and then haul all the way back to your hood? When the local bodega is 5 minutes away? Or if you work two jobs and live in a shelter and have a curfew? Or you have 3 kids and 4 grandbabies living in your home all relying on your income as the primary source? (I’m bringing up real examples of people I know)

    I’m sorry, but its not that easy. Never has been. There are some people who wuold LOVE to eat healthier, shop at Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, etc. But they have to decide between spending $4.99 on a half gallon of OJ that will last for 5 or 6 glasses or 3 half gallons of juice for that same $5. Which would you choose with $5 in your pocket, and 6 people in need of drink?

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  14. I agree wholeheartedly with Benee. Food should be free. Everytime I walk into a supermarket the absurdity of having all that food on the shelves being guarded by security guards while there is a homeless man outside asking for change for food strikes me to my core.

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  15. It’s INSANITY!!!
    And I come from this perspective having spent my entire post-college career working with the homeless and the poor. I see this nonsense every single day and it makes no sense that one of the richest countries in the world has such a huge homeless and pvoerty problem.

    I will never see a justification for charging ridiculous amounts of money for healthy food that will satisfy me.

    We live in a country where the rising costs of living continues to surpass the wage increases. And the fact that obesity (and other health issues) is almost directly correlated to income says a LOT.

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    1. Yeah, food should be free. So should a lot of things. But it’s not. And healthy foods are expensive to make. Now, maybe the gov’t should cover the entire cost; we can debate that. But they don’t. You and I pay for it. And just because we’re paying for it doesn’t mean that it has all of a sudden become cheaper to make. If you can afford to pay for it, you should. If you can afford to pay more so that somebody who can’t pay can have some, you should do that too. But it’s not realistic to ignore that these things have costs; and my opinion is that Americans are unreasonably sensitive to paying more money for good food.

      Obesity and income may have a relationship, but they’re not necessarily correlated. That’s like saying there is a correlation between the appearance of ice-cream cones and short shorts. Yes, appearances of the two tend to increase at the same time, but as the result of a third factor: the sun. I think it possible that obesity and income have a relationship because they’re both affected by education. I really don’t know; but I don’t think the relationship proves that poor people have no control over the quality of their food.

      I’m not saying that poor people have access to good food just as readily as wealthier folks; obviously, that’s not the case. But we are not being honest if we pretend that people don’t make bad choices for reasons unrelated to access. Eating well is something Americans have to learn, and not everybody is up for the lesson.

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      1. I still believe this argument gives more weight to the socioeconomic link to obesity than the education link. And I think the majority of the evidence about SES, education and obesity find an independent effect of SES on obesity (and several other health outcomes) separate from education. Basically saying that your rent is X and your childcare is Y, and no matter how much education you have, you only have Z amount to spend on food. That amount does restrict how much, and where, you can spend on food. For example, thank God I don’t eat meat, because quite honestly, I wouldn’t be able to fit it into my food budget. The amount of education I have doesn’t help me there. If we lived where we should, i.e. based on our income, and used the transportation that we should, i.e. not have a car, then we probably wouldn’t be able to shop at the Whole Foods. My education wouldn’t get me a pass to get in there. To say that SES is mediated solely through education…I just think that’s wrong.

        But I think you’d enjoy this great article because it does talk about both points. Here’s the abstract:

        Many health disparities in the United States are linked to inequalities in education and income. This review focuses on the relation between obesity and diet quality, dietary energy density, and energy costs. Evidence is provided to support the following points. First, the highest rates of obesity occur among population groups with the highest poverty rates and the least education. Second, there is an inverse relation between energy density (MJ/kg) and energy cost ($/MJ), such that energy-dense foods composed of refined grains, added sugars, or fats may represent the lowest-cost option to the consumer. Third, the high energy density and palatability of sweets and fats are associated with higher energy intakes, at least in clinical and laboratory studies. Fourth, poverty and food insecurity are associated with lower food expenditures, low fruit and vegetable consumption, and lower-quality diets. A reduction in diet costs in linear programming models leads to high-fat, energy-dense diets that are similar in composition to those consumed by low-income groups. Such diets are more affordable than are prudent diets based on lean meats, fish, fresh vegetables, and fruit. The association between poverty and obesity may be mediated, in part, by the low cost of energy-dense foods and may be reinforced by the high palatability of sugar and fat. This economic framework provides an explanation for the observed links between socioeconomic variables and obesity when taste, dietary energy density, and diet costs are used as intervening variables. More and more Americans are becoming overweight and obese while consuming more added sugars and fats and spending a lower percentage of their disposable income on food.

        Basically, dense energy foods costs less. You also have to eat more of them to keep you satisfied. Poorer people spend less of their disposable income on food, because they are spending more of their income on other things, like rent and child care. So their food budgets are focused on the dense energy foods which also taste really good – that’s the palatability issue (and I would argue time!) Those diets are, at least according to this article (which is a review of many articles), less expensive than the healthier diet of lean meats and fruits and veggies, and also does require not just more education about food, but a change in tastes. And how much education? Where? At Penn? At an HBCU? At a community college? As a sociologist, when we just start saying “education” and throwing out numbers, but yet we know that all education is, to say it somewhat crudely, not all created equal, meaning not all the same, I wonder what do we mean by “education’? But that’s for another time….

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      2. Interesting; it’s both. And if you have to eat more of it to be full, than you’re ultimately spending more; you might as well have purchased the healthier–but more expensive–option to start. I think we could discuss this all day, and if my child ever slept for more than 30 minutes at a time (minute 15!), I might have to read the article. It seems to conclude that Americans are struggling with this problem (spending less $ on food, eating poor quality foods, and getting fat), as opposed to just poor Americans.

        This debate made me think of that Boondocks episode where MLK comes back, and is preaching to black folks. And one woman says “always talkin’ about reading, and eatin’ right; ain’t nobody want to hear that s@#!” It made me laugh, and it probably made you laugh as well. And I think it’s funny because there’s some truth in it. If you’ve never run into a person who could have made a better decision and wouldn’t, then I’m shocked; I see it all the time.

        I also think you and I are having an unspoken conversation here about who is to blame. I think you believe I’m blaming the victim, while I believe that you don’t give the victim enough agency. That theme is often running in the background of many of our debates…

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