"Weighing In": An Interview with Author Julie Guthman, Part II

By: Michael Engle

With the obesity epidemic in news over the recent years, society is often quick to point to personal responsibility as a main cause to America's weight problems. But in Julie Guthman's book Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism, she proposes other causes like exposure to chemicals and under-regulation of these by the government.

We continue her interview here with her thoughts on the ways to address this epidemic. For part I of her interview, click here.

According to your book, obesity has been a long-term problem in American society, having taken root a generation ago. Back in the 60's, chemicals were generally deemed "good for you," and obesity is only now being considered to be an epidemic, even though it could have a long and undocumented, or previously ignored, history. Is it even possible for society to make short-term changes to right ourselves or should we focus on ensuring the health and well-being of the next generation?

Anything we've been trying to understand since the 80's, about obesity, probably has roots in the 60's or 50's--when the environmental chemicals were proliferating. What I really want to make clear is that I don't think obesity, per se, is the problem. I think the chemicals in the environment, that are changing us in ways we don't understand, are the problem.

I think we need to regulate these chemicals because they are having many effects on us, both subtle and not-so-subtle, while obesity may just be one that is a sensation. We need to get our focus off obesity and more focus on these things in the environment that are bad for us, in ways that don't necessarily manifest themselves in fat. Is there a short-term solution to it? Not really. We need to take it seriously: the toxins in our environment, we need to regulate them!

So it sounds like this is a lot easier said than done.

Well, that's the point of the book. The easy solutions are not the ones that we need for this. That's why, at the end, I say that we need to put capitalism on the table. We need to take inequality seriously!

You mention governmental involvement in food policy, and you imply that capitalism is full of double standards. In your opinion, who or what, within the federal government is doing the right thing?

Every couple of years, we talk about changing the subsidy program. That would be on the right track. Subsidies don't cause us to produce more corn and soy for manufacturing foods, but they don't discourage it either. Any kind of farm bill that discourages the subsidies of monocrops would be good. I don't think the government does nearly enough to regulate agrochemicals, like I said, but there's now talk of disallowing BPA, which is a likely obesogen and a real problem. There's not any one body that's doing anything great, but there are signs that there are possibilities every once in a while. These are the bills that happen through social movements, that really put pressure on government. One of the things I'm trying to do in the book is to encourage social movements to look more at the policy in the environment, and less on projects that just serve people better food.

You mention, in your introduction, that you are a foodie yourself. What do you personally look for when shopping? What are some of your favorite foods to cook and/or eat?

I do buy a lot of fruits and vegetables at the farmers' market. I do not buy conventional meat of any sort, conventional eggs, or conventional milk. I think that the stuff we use for livestock is probably the worst for us, and we don't know enough about it. So I tend to buy organic because they are grown with fewer pesticides, and I am very concerned with labor issues. Now, I don't think the organic movement addresses labor issues, but at the very least, there is a little bit less exposure to toxins, which really concerns me.

To quote the old Chinese proverb: "The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step." What should be the first step to a healthier America, and to a healthier individual?

I think the first step should be to get political. I think questions like that tend to lead to thoughts that eating right should be the first step, but I think that this is the political problem right now. I think there is too much focus on what can be done individually, as well as the small programs in certain communities that bring good food to other people. That's good, but I think the first step has to be strategizing around this particular battle that could be won: to change farm subsidies or to eliminate a really bad agrochemical. Our first steps have to be big political steps in my view.

Photo: Julie Guthman

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