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The health of our nation is at serious risk. Thirty-one percent of California school children are obese. Chronic disease, heart disease, stroke, and diabetes are the #1, #2, and #6 cause of death in LA County, respectively. The situation becomes more dire everyday. The link between sugar consumption and obesity is well established, and some of our policies are feeding the problem.
Our government subsidizes the production of corn, much of which is used in the production of high-fructose corn syrup. Corn syrup produces a sweet taste at a fraction of the cost of sugar. It can take on a variety of flavors, and sometimes works as a preservative, but when it enters our body it has the same effect as sugar and provides no nutritional value. We have come to expect some of our foods to work this way. We know, for example, that when we buy a doughnut, a soda, or a dessert we are indulging ourselves a bit with regard to sugar. However, many of the foods we buy at the grocery store surprisingly have as much sugar, if not more, than sweet treats: salad dressing, condiments, bread, yogurt, and cereal, just to name a few. Many of our meals, if you break them down, consist of a bowl of sugar for breakfast, followed by a little meat between two slices of sugar for lunch. For dinner we start with veggies covered with syrup, then continue with a main course flavored in sugar, and top it off with sugar for dessert. Without knowing it, we are consuming mass amounts of sugar in a way that was simply not possible in previous generations.
This has had the effect of helping to stabilize the cost of processed food, but has created an incentive for the processed-food industry to flavor and sell as much of this product as possible. Walking through the grocery store one can see that many of the items (especially in the middle of the store) are loaded with sugar, but are quite affordable and will last on our shelves a long time. This problem becomes exacerbated when we encounter food deserts - areas with sub-par grocery stores with minimal fresh food and an abundance of processed, unhealthy, sugary food. These cheaply produced products allow the manufacturer to strike huge profit margins, giving them plenty of money to advertise. Low-income communities in particular become dependent on this unhealthy food, which is full of empty calories.
How do we respond to this? We can start by making changes to our own diets. By preparing much of our own food and avoiding items high in sugar, we can help change the market. Beyond that, we need to question our government and its subsidization of corn, and ask if the access to cheap food is worth the toll it is taking on our nation’s health. A further step would be to work with communities to increase accessibility and affordability of fresh healthy food, and to break our sugar addiction. My nonprofit, SugarWatch, seeks to address these issues head on by partnering with schools to increase access to fresh food via mobile farm stands, educating the community about healthier diet options, and advocating for better school nutrition. To learn more, you can visit www.sugarwatch.org
Brent Walmley was a 2014 Los Angeles Fellow and is an ordained minister, educator, and student advocate. SugarWatch is his latest endeavor to continue his advocacy.
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