Monday, January 16, 2012

Paula Deen and the American Dream

Today is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday for those of you living in the US. And as news cycles goes in the States, there will be a full round of stories revolving around Dr. King’s legacy of civil rights, his family, or this year’s hot topic: the misquoting of Dr. King on the spanking new MLK memorial in Washington D.C.[1]
Strangely enough, this holiday weekend has coincided with another monumental announcement. Last Friday, Huffington Post broke the story that Paula Deen[2], the doyenne of butter, sugar and Southern Kitsch, has Type 2 diabetes.[3] The rumor is that she will be a spokesperson for Novartis’ diabetes drugs [4] as well.
I don’t want to trivialize the importance of Martin Luther King, but these events have more to do with each other than you think…
Let me explain.
To those of you that follow the foodietainment scene in the US, the irony is probably killing you. To refresh y’all’s memory, last year August, Anthony Bourdain, ex-chef of Les Halles & culinary pundit, called Ms. Deen, “the worst, most dangerous person in America,” for contributing to America’s obesity epidemic. He continued by saying, "She revels in unholy connections with evil corporations and she's proud of the fact that her food is fucking bad for you. Plus, her food sucks."[5]
Ms. Deen told Bourdain in the New York Post, “to get a life,” and then said “Not everybody can afford to pay $58 for prime rib or $650 for a bottle of wine. My friends and I cook for regular families who worry about feeding their kids and paying the bills.”
Whoa. Ad hominem attacks are never nice, and this one had tongues a-wagging (including a whole New York Times’ op-ed piece by Frank Bruni).[6] 
Both of them had a point. Families are struggling all over the US to pay bills and feed their families.  One in six families are receiving food stamps, a historic high. On the other hand, obesity is killing Americans. Two in three Americans are overweight and of that half are considered “obese” by medical standards.
Is there a correlation with these two facts? Uh-huh. As noted by my earlier post on childhood poverty and nutrition, people living poverty are fighting a Sisyphean battle with poverty, food insecurity and malnutrition. It’s not just the amount of calories that poor families can afford; it’s also the quality of calories that people can afford. It’s cheaper to eat (insert junk food) than to eat (insert nutritious food).
It’s no wonder that there is an inverse relationship between income and obesity: in other words, the poorer you are the more likely you are to be obese. And the more obese you are the more likely you are to have Type 2 diabetes (90% of all suffering from Type 2 diabetes are obese).[7] And of course, people that live in poverty are more likely to develop diabetes.[8]
And here’s the kicker: Those living in across the Bible Belt and the Mississippi Delta, areas that have some the highest poverty rates in the nation, have the highest rates of diabetes of all.[9] I hate to tell you this Paula, but you’re a statistic.
To those who are familiar with the cannon of Southern cuisine, the incidence of obesity is not really too much of a surprise. The land of fried chicken and buttered grits does not exactly scream health food to anyone. Add endemic poverty to the mix and you have a recipe for a ready-made diabetes hotspot costing the nation $116 billion annually.
Towards the end of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, he developed the Poor People’s Campaign, to highlight the injustice of poverty. As he put it in 1967:
“In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out…There are twice as many white poor as [black] poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and [black] alike.”
            And just as poverty affects black and white alike, so does the health consequences stemming from poverty.[10] If we want to conquer diabetes, we also have to conquer poverty, obesity and a food culture that glorifries (yes, that is my bad pun) unhealthy foods. And this means you Paula. If anyone, you should understand poverty.[11] If indeed you make food for families worried about paying their bills, you should have the conscience to make sure they are eating right. And that does not mean a macaroni and cheese recipe that has butter, sour cream, cheddar cheese and a can of condensed cheese soup. Embodying the American Dream is not an excuse to play Russian roulette with people’s health.
            And for God’s sake – stay away from the donuts.

Martin Luther King, Jr.


[1] The new monument has the words, " I was a drum major for justice peace and righteousness" inscribed on it. According to scholars, Dr. King never uttered those words in his February 1968 speech. The correct quote is as follows: "Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness."
After protestors demanded the quote be erased or corrected, US Interior Secretary Ken Salazar finally admitted the error and ordered the quote be corrected on the monument.
[2] To those not living in Paula Deen is a TV food celebrity in the US. She is also known for promoting recipes such as the “The Lady’s Brunch Burger,” a bacon-fried egg-burger sandwiched between two donuts.
[3] Science note: Diabetes is basically a disease that is marked by insulin deficiencies or malfunctions. Type 1 is usually found in childhood and is a small number of cases (around 10%). The rest of cases are Type 2 – diabetes that is marked by the body’s inability use insulin efficiently, thus leading to high blood sugar levels.
[4] A Novartis representative has denied any “multi-million dollar” endorsement deal with Ms. Deen. But knowing the PR world, this could be BS. The truth? We’ll see….
[6] Fact check: Tony Bourdain is no saint either on the health meter. He’s a known chain-smoker and if it weren’t for the fact that he has the fastest metabolism on the planet, he probably wouldn’t be as thin as he is. As for Ms. Deen, Bourdain is right. She has a full line of eponymous foodstuffs, appliances, tools, dinnerware and books as well as a hefty endorsement deal with meat processor Smithfield - she’s living high on the hog.
[7] Obesity reduces the body’s ability to use insulin properly; therefore, those who are obese are highly likely to develop Type 2 diabetes.
[8] I have yet to see hard numbers on this, but a Canadian study has shown that those living below $C15,000 are twice as likely to develop Type 2 diabetes than those with higher incomes. Research done by the Mayo Clinic has shown a strong correlation between poverty and diabetes rates.  Click here for the study.
[9]Click here for the CDC map of diabetes prevalence.
[10] Certain demographic groups, such as African-Americans and Latinos, have a higher incidence of Type 2 diabetes compared to the white population.
[11] To those who don’t know the “Paula Deen Story” it goes something like this. Deen was a dirt poor, near homeless, single mom with a bad case of agoraphobia when she started her cooking career. Through the dint of hard work and good Southern charm, she stared a catering business and restaurant that brought her to American homes everywhere – and $9.13 million a year.
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