There’s a kind of unwritten rule that one food group or commodity should not attack another food group or commodity. After all, the argument goes, “we are all on this plate together.” Or, “there are no bad foods, just bad eating habits.”

Tax might cause ‘bad’ food’s prohibition

Larry Waterfield
Columnist

But out in the wider world, the gloves came off a long time ago and most foods are under attack by someone. Cities and towns want to tax junk foods or fat or salt or sugar. Every day there is a new food villain.

Fresh produce usually get a pass, but even here there are attacks over food safety or how produce is grown. Is it safe? Was it grown in a “sustainable” way?

The supplement makers say they can provide all the benefits of fresh produce with pills.

“You’re too busy to eat five servings a day. Pop a pill instead.”

New child nutrition legislation, passed by the Senate and under consideration in the U.S. House of Representatives, takes aim at junk foods, bad food choices, vending machine sales in schools, and boosts meal payments to schools.

The bill carries a $4.5 billion price tag.

First lady Michelle Obama personally is lobbying for passage of the legislation, which she says “will require more fruits and vegetables in our schools.”

She is campaigning against childhood obesity, which is a malady rapidly growing.

Should we ban certain foods, tax them heavily, demand complex labeling on menus? Or should we maintain freedom of commerce that does not allow states or localities to block commerce or enact punitive taxes?

Should “bad” foods be treated the way we treat other “sins” and be taxed heavily, the way we tax cigarettes, booze and recreational drugs in places where they have been decriminalized?

Should some foods simply be banned or their advertising curtailed?

Would it be right to legalize marijuana and ban Twinkies and Double Whoppers with cheese?

The tax route seems more attractive than a ban, which might not pass the courts. Towns and cities are dreaming of the revenues from taxing junky food.

Soda pop taxes, fast foods, fatty foods, salty foods and snacks. This could be a bonanza for communities hard pressed by the recession.

Is food the next tobacco? We seem to be moving in that direction, with the claims that obesity costs $150 billion in medical costs a year.

But where would this tax money go? Would it just fatten the coffers of the tax collectors, or would it be used to improve diets, buy produce for poor people and encourage produce distribution in inner cities and rural areas, which are often poorly served?

Would it be used to improve nutrition and educate people about the benefits of a better, more balanced diet?

If money is taken, via taxes, from one part of the food industry then it ought to be used to improve overall diets and nutrition. Otherwise, the taxes would just be a punishment for one food group and a windfall for government.

It would also punish low income people because they spend a higher proportion of their income on food and drink — and often make bad nutrition choices to save money.

Flush suburbanites aren’t going to be pinched by paying an extra dime for a cola drink or a quarter surtax on salty snacks.

Still, basic freedom of choice, economic freedom, would say we should not be punished for our food choices.

This is the nanny state gone wild. Prohibitions and punitive taxes invite evasions. Will there be the food equivalent of the speakeasies of prohibition days?

“Knock three times and say ‘cheeseburger.’”

There is no simple answer. The urge to regulate, tax and ban is a strong one. We love to tell other people how to live their lives.

But there are plenty of ways to provide incentives for better diets:

  • more produce in schools;
  • more access to produce in poorer communities;
  • more nutrition education, particularly about good diet and reasonable portion control;
  • more incentives through food stamps and farmers markets.

At some point there has to be a shift to individual responsibility. Just say no to super-sizing. Use that old line from a Mel Brooks movie: “If you’re good you can have a fruit cup.”

Maybe we could shift the burden to the individual. People have to understand that food in the U.S. is so relatively cheap that purveyors can increase portions at little cost.

That’s a sales incentive. Get more, pay little for it.

I knew a major strawberry grower-shipper in Florida who also had a pick-your-own operation. He complained one day that patrons were coming into the fields with bowls, milk, sugar and spoons and eating berries without paying.

He said, half seriously, “Maybe I’ll have to weigh them as they go in, and as they go out and charge for any weight gain.’

Let’s hope we don’t start taxing people based on weight gain. If we do, I’m gonna be in a lot of trouble.

E-mail lww@verizon.net

What solution do you think is best for encouraging healthful diets? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.