President Obama has come in for a lot of heat lately for being photographed eating junk food. He is not the only one, of course. Others in his entourage — the vice president, the first family, and members of cabinet — have all chowed down on fast food while cameras focused on them.
Grub Street Los Angeles posted a slideshow of the President’s culinary pleasures. And now the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine has launched a petition asking those associated with the White House to stop eating junk food in public.
When the first report appeared, I read it with curiosity but little attention. Then I thought of my own years of working within health systems, trying to encourage a shift in thinking about food. One of the hardest parts was having to walk the talk, every day, everywhere.
I knew too many people in the small communities I served to be seen grabbing fries and soda pop at a fast-food eatery. One photograph of my dipping onion rings in ketchup would have undermined every effort I had made to raise awareness about the importance of eating the best possible food from a sustainable food system. And I was just a lowly community development worker.
The memory made me re-think my blasé response to the junk food photo ops. I should not have dismissed the criticisms as nattering. When top governmental officials are photographed eating junk food, they are undermining their own messages.
What Junk Food Photo Ops Say
As President of the United States, Barack Obama has no choice but to be a role model. Every move he makes sends messages. When he eats fast food as the cameras roll, he is saying something untenable.
Fast food photo ops lend the weight of the presidency to a lot of things I suspect he does not really support. Here are three of them:
1. Abusing animals
The USDA Market News Service publishes a weekly report on the number of animals slaughtered under federal inspection. For the week ending April 28, 2012, the tally was:
- 614,528 cows
- 13,067 calves
- 2,086,128 hogs
- 34,733 sheep
- 9,596 goats
- 723 bison
Chickens are absent from the list, but the Humane Society of the U.S. estimates more than 9 billion chickens are slaughtered each year. Divide that by 52, and the number of chickens slaughtered during that same week was approximately 173 million.
In spite of a spate of announcements by chains planning to end gestation crates for sows and cramped cages for chickens, all but a minority of the animals slaughtered in one week in April had been subjected to the appalling conditions of factory farms.
When President Obama is photographed eating meat from those farms, he is tacitly approving the inhumane treatment of animals.
2. Encouraging children to eat junk food
I don’t for a minute believe President Obama chomps into a burger and thinks “Eat up, kids.” But obesity in the U.S. has reached epidemic proportions. The President is a role model. What he eats in public sets a standard. Shouldn’t that standard be high?
Fast food chains are adding healthier choices to their offerings, but the bulk of their menus continue to be overloaded with salt, fat and sugar — three ingredients most conducive to adding pounds and undermining health. A report published this week in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine estimates 42 percent of Americans will be obese by 2030. That will add $550 billion to health-care costs.
Being overweight and obesity are linked to a head-spinning array of health issues, among them early-onset diabetes in children as young as eight, heart disease, cancers, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and depression.
When the country’s top role model is filmed eating fast food, he is unwittingly encouraging children to eat more of the very food that is killing them.
3. Destroying the environment
The industrial farms that provide the crops that ultimately end up in our burgers, chicken nuggets and sodas are destroying the land on which we depend, polluting our water and contributing massively to climate change.
The impact can be measured globally. According to The State of the World’s Land and Water Resources:
Widespread degradation and deepening scarcity of land and water resources have placed a number of key food production systems around the globe at risk, posing a profound challenge to the task of feeding a world population expected to reach 9 billion people by 2050. …
No region is immune: systems at risk can be found around the globe, from the highlands of the Andes to the steppes of Central Asia, from Australia’s Murray-Darling river basin to the central United States.
Another report, A Harvest of Heat: Agribusiness and Climate Change, tracks the impact of industrial agriculture’s dependence on fossil fuels and states:
Manufacturing synthetic fertilizers and pesticides is estimated to consume almost 40 percent of all the energy used by US agriculture. It can take as much as 33,000 cubic feet of natural gas (or five tons of carbon) to make one ton of nitrogen fertilizer. In addition to generating GHGs, chemical fertilizers and pesticides disrupt key ecosystem functions of soil biota, decreasing the land’s ability to sequester carbon, cycle nutrients, break down greenhouse gases and retain water.
When the President is photographed eating fast food from the industrial food system, he is inadvertently approving of the destruction of the planet. The same holds true for those around him, whether family or government officials.
Ask President Obama to Stop
Government officials are role models whether they want to be or not. Their actions either support or undermine their messages. Being photographed chowing down on junk food tells the public that all that lies behind that food is acceptable.
It isn’t. If they want to satisfying a craving for burgers and fries, let them do it out of the camera’s eye. Better yet, let them think before they take a bite: is this good for my body? Is it good for the earth?
Send a message to the administration by signing the petition from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
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Photo from cohdra via morgueFile; photos 2 and 3: Thinkstock