…At Your Own Risk

Whole Foods Market CEO John Mackey’s piece in The Wall Street Journal, “The Whole Foods Alternative to ObamaCare,” touted his own company’s health insurance policy, offered half-baked, pie-in-the-sky solutions (“make it easier for individuals to make voluntary, tax-deductible donation[s] to help the millions of people who have no insurance”) while creating an unintended segue to virtually every problem found in the cavernous disparity between the haves and have-nots; those who have access to good health care and those who do not; and those who have access to whole, fresh foods, and those who, no matter how badly they want it, do not.

You can agree or disagree with Mackey’s so-called alternatives to the Congressional health reform bill (formally, the America’s Affordable Health Choices Act), but he presents another blaming-the-victim assertion that all people have control over what they’re eating, or, more specifically, what they have access to.

Mackey states:

“many of our health-care problems are self-inflicted: two-thirds of Americans are now overweight and one-third are obese. Most of the diseases that kill us and account for about 70% of all health-care spending — heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and obesity — are mostly preventable through proper diet, exercise, not smoking, minimal alcohol consumption and other healthy lifestyle choices.”

Totally true. No argument there. That is, until you look more closely at the predatory practices of the tobacco industry, the costs related to “proper diet” (remember, this is the CEO of what is commonly referred to as “Whole Paychecks”) and those related to “other healthy lifestyle choices.”

Who knew it was so easy, cheap, and, well, elective, to be so healthy?

“Every American is responsible for his or her own health,” Mackey says, shrewdly and simultaneously using two narrative tricks resulting in the reader imagining Ragged Dick’s literal, word-for-word interpretation of the U.S. Constitution: “A careful reading of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will not reveal any intrinsic right to health care, food or shelter. That’s because there isn’t any. This ‘right’ has never existed in America.”

I would argue that the “life” part of the inalienable rights of man covers health, food, and shelter. So we agree to disagree.

But rather than Mackey weigh in on the national health care debate, he should spend more time making sure that the individual choices he so values, are actually legitimate options for more Americans.

In her Spring 2008 piece in Shelterforce, Kari Lydersen cites a 2004 survey of more than 10,000 Philadelphia households, that found that more than 30 percent of African Americans reported fair- or poor-quality grocery access, compared to 24 percent of Latinos, 15 percent of Asians, and 11 percent of whites.

“Adults in fair or poor health were twice as likely to report fair or poor access to groceries compared to adults in good health. At that time, about 71,000 Philadelphians reported having a hard time finding fresh produce in their neighborhood, according to the Food Trust. It is not surprising that lower-income residents in the grocery-deprived areas were also significantly more likely to eat takeout or fast food more than three times a week.”

These Americans are arguably the least likely to shop at Whole Foods. Mackey fails to point to the glaringly obvious, baseline, fundamental fact that those who can afford a healthy diet are also the most likely to afford quality health care.

Mackey notes that a diet rich in plant-based, nutrient dense, and low-fat “should” result in Americans living “well into our 90s and even past 100 years of age.”

It certainly should.

Matthew Brian Hersh served as senior editor at Shelterforce from March 2008 to October 2012. He studied English at Rutgers University and has spent his professional career in journalism, policy, and politics.


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