By Jeremy Olshan
America is what it eats: Food fuels the pursuit of happiness. It powers our ambition, ingenuity and constitutions.
We spend tremendous time and money filling our bellies. After putting roofs over our heads and paying for transportation, food is Americans’ greatest expense.
But America’s feast is not dished out equitably on our dinner plates. Food fosters inequality and limits life, liberty and opportunity, Nancy Roman, the president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for a Healthier America, tells MarketWatch.
For a rich country, we eat poorly, studies show. Cheap calories today grow costly tomorrow, Roman says, as COVID-19 has made disturbingly clear. The diet was cast years before the pandemic even reached our shores: Many of the poorest Americans working on the frontlines suffer from heart disease and diabetes, two of the preexisting conditions that make the coronavirus so deadly. Empty calories fill hospitals.
All of this may seem like an unlikely subject for The Value Gap , our interview series about the economic dimensions of racism and inequality. But Roman, who has spent her career working with the United Nations, the food industry and food banks, makes a compelling case that these things are all connected. The battle for racial justice, for economic equality and social mobility, like so much else in America, sometimes comes down to a food fight.
MarketWatch: What we eat is a personal choice, but it’s also a consequence of industry, regulation and economics. Do you think too much blame is placed on individual decisions and not enough on these other factors?
Roman: We have to acknowledge that capitalism has not reached the full population of this country with healthy, nutritious food. It has failed to do that. Capitalism has failed. We see now that the absence of food increases underlying conditions, and underlying conditions are increasing COVID. We know that. And so we now have what I call the burden of knowledge.
I am not one that likes to heap blame and guilt on anyone in the past, but now we have the burden of knowledge.
MarketWatch: To what extent is diet making the pandemic worse — and what can be done about it?
Roman: From March forward, we see that the differential with underlying conditions is huge. And by the way, those conditions are not hereditary: Heart disease and diabetes are both diet-related. We see that if you don’t have underlying conditions, you have a 1.6% [chance] of dying when you get COVID, and if you do, you have a 20% chance .
Food is really the answer to building people’s immune systems and preventing these underlying conditions, which are not just affecting COVID, but so many other things from longevity to quality of life.
We have the burden of knowledge, so we have to ask different questions. My question isn’t, “Did the players of the past fail us somehow?” It’s “What are we going to do today?”
MarketWatch: So what can we do?
Roman: Part of the way we do it is by getting in people’s faces and forcing them to confront this reality. It has been too convenient not to face the reality. And it is hard to face. The good news is we have been beating ourselves against the brick wall of trying to get big-box retailers to go into these neighborhoods, but now with online and delivery that is feeling less necessary, so we have fewer excuses.
MarketWatch: Are you saying that by spending more money to get better food in people’s hands today, we will save money tomorrow?
Roman: This is one of the big frustrations. It is so obvious that it would be such a savings. I always say that depending on your political persuasion, there is a good reason to do this. You can do this out of human compassion if you are really focused on the person, but if you’re a real “small g” economist, who says, “I only care about saving money,” then there is still a great reason to do it: to save money on health-care costs and everything down the road.
The challenge is it’s not an instant result. Democracy punishes solutions that take time. If you start improving diets today, you are not going to have six months later a COVID-resilient person. It takes a while. Although there is some science that shows you can improve metabolic health in a short period, you can’t quickly unwind existing diabetes and heart disease.
MarketWatch: In this country, isn’t it our right to eat whatever we please? To live free or diet? If I want to eat fast food for three meals a day, isn’t that my right? I like kale, but I am not sure I want someone else telling me I have to eat it.
Roman: I know, and this is a somewhat controversial view. About two years ago I was in Chicago speaking to 200 food executives. During the Q&A, a European food exec asked me, why is it in America we value freedom so much more? We have been unwilling to embrace some of the curbs. Europe doesn’t say you are not allowed to eat something, but they do regulate the size of packaging. They can drink sugary beverages, but the cans are smaller.