The consequences of a Fat Albert culture, fueled by fast food, television, and lack of exercise, are frightening. A six-year-old that I worked with in Head Start gained 20 pounds last year despite private sessions with a dietitian. She is not alone: one-quarter of Black children ages 4-12 are overweight, many of them obese. Non-insulin requiring diabetes, orthopedic complications, hypertension, and other health issues are becoming increasingly visible among children as young as 5 years old.
The list of proposals to address poor nutrition is suddenly growing as fast as the problem. Some blame farm policy for subsidizing corn production and its associated corn sweetener industry. Others would sue fast food tycoons for advertising unhealthy products to children. Special taxes on junk food have been suggested. As varied and controversial as these proposals are, they have this much in common: they are too simplistic to be effective.
So why is Albert fat? Would he have starred on the cross-country team if not for farm policy, or become a gymnast if not for ill-advised advertising? I don’t think so. The problem is much deeper, and is rooted in the very culture that has embraced him. At least two generations of Americans have become physically and economically dependent upon convenience and fast foods. Blacks and poor urbanites are most likely to face limited availability of wholesome foods and often lack the financial resources to pay for them. Even more disturbing, notoriously underfunded inner-city school systems are increasingly reliant on junk food sales to fund extracurricular activities.
I try to imagine going into an urban grocery store where the produce is as appealing and comparably priced as in its suburban counterpart. I try to imagine farmers markets that are well-served by public transportation so that those who cannot afford cars have equal access. I try to imagine inner-city schools being the primary beneficiaries of any "sin tariffs" that may be derived from the sale of junk foods. Each of these images highlights the futility of public policies that do not specifically address the complex tapestry of interpersonal and societal issues that feed Fat Albert.
We must face these issues squarely and develop solutions that reflect sensitivity to class and economic circumstances. Otherwise, the war on obesity, like the war on drugs, will continue to be a losing battle.