That’s the conclusion being put forward in a recent opinion piece published by The Journal of the American Medical Association and co-authored by Lindsey Murtagh (J.D., Harvard School of Public Health) and David Ludwig (M.D./Ph.D., Children’s Hospital Boston). They argue that if a child is obese enough, the state should be able to assume custody in the interest of their health. That’s right- if your kid is deemed to be too overweight, they should be placed in a foster home. I think this is a bad solution to a bad problem.

Having worked in hospitals for several years, and having witnessed firsthand the debilitating effects of obesity and the disorders it causes later in life, I would be the first to admit that we need to do something to help these children. The solution isn’t, however, to take the children away from their families and place them with foster parents who will theoretically enforce a dietary solution. That’s treating the symptom, not the root cause. It would put a massive (in more ways than one) burden on an already overworked and overwhelmed foster care system, as well as the American taxpayer through increased case management needs. That’s not to mention the fact that older kids are harder to place, and  obese children obviously aren’t the most popular choice among foster parents.

I think we need to acknowledge that the primary reason people are becoming more and more obese these days is the increased penetration and affordability of fast food, and unhealthy foods in general. The problem is only compounded by the fact that times have been hard during the recession. The problem isn’t that parents have suddenly become less responsible- there have always been and will always be people who neglect their children in one way or another, and our system has specific processes for dealing with that. However, if a parent can only afford to feed their kids off the dollar menu, does it seem reasonable that they should be punished by having their child taken away? Doesn’t feeding the kid show they give a shit? Mandatory foster placement is a single broad stroke against a problem with many different causes, and would serve all too often to abduct children from loving, caring homes. I don’t think we should stand for such lazy, callous solutions here in America.

You want to know my solution? Tax the shit out of corporations like McDonald’s, and place taxes that are on par with (or better yet, higher than) the taxes we imp0se on alcohol and cigarettes on fast food and junk food. This will make those types of foods expensive as hell, and less people will buy them as a result. Profit will be hurt, and corporations will have significant incentive to invest in healthy foods. The more companies operating in the healthy food arena, the lower the prices will be due to competition. That’s basic economics. The end result is healthy food being cheaper, and unhealthy food being more expensive. A cheeseburger isn’t such an attractive choice when it costs as much as a porterhouse, and less people will get fat off of them as a result- problem solved. Such a solution would also generate revenue while simultaneously addressing our increasing ADULT obesity problem.

Such a solution would remove the future burden that obese individuals will inevitably become on our already strained Medicare and Medicaid systems. It would also cause insurance rates to drop over time, because insurance companies would have to cover fewer obesity-related ailments (there are a plethora). Perhaps most importantly, it would break the cycle of unhealthy eating and serve to garner political will in support of subsidies for healthy, sustainable foods, thus creating a potential for the emergence of new American food industries. Jobs, people?

We have developed a tendency to think, like Ms.Murtagh and Mr. Ludwig, in an exclusively reactive way- we’re trying to get fat kids to lose weight, as opposed to trying to keep kids from getting fat in the first place. We’re treating symptoms rather than causes, and it’s gotten to the point that it’s like putting a band-aid on a ten-pound tumor. We need to get serious about this issue, as both a country and an electorate, and try to implement long-term solutions rather than short-term ones. Only once we learn these lessons will we begin to see progress.

Painfully. Slow. Progress.


About Painfully. Slow. Progress.

I am a secular humanist, an independent progressive, and a law student currently earning both my J.D. and LL.M. in democratic governance and the rule of law. More importantly, I consider myself to be a student of anything and everything. I started this blog in hopes of generating an in-depth and practical discussion of American politics, culture, religion, and law. Hopefully it will serve to get people really thinking, including me. View all posts by Painfully. Slow. Progress.


  • Rachel

    There’s a kid at my grandparents’ church that makes me want to scream. He has serious diabetes and sleep apnea, and taking three steps makes him out of breath. He is almost literally spherical, and is only five/six years old. His grandparents take care of him, and they let him eat whatever he wants. So this is something I really care about.You had me when you suggested that feeding the kid means you care. But my logic train derailed somewhere between “they can only afford the dollar menu” and “let’s tax fast food so it’s not affordable.” Wait. What? So the solution is to starve the kid instead?

    I propose a happy medium, friend: Don’t yank the kid out of the home, and don’t force them to live off air. Require the family to see a nutritionist, and get CS involved for bimonthly visits to the home. Force the parents that care to *properly* care.

    • Kelly

      Rachel, I was listening to C-Span this morning and they were talking about how the average American consumes 4 times as much meat as they did in the 1950s. This is due to “peasant food” (or what used to be considered peasant food) being extremely expensive. Peasant food was fresh fruits, veggies, and fish. Therefore, people are resorting to cheaper foods which are mostly meats and junk. I believe parents do care about their kids but in hard times such as recession people must feed kids what is cheapest. Also, nutritionists are NOT cheap. I think we must find a way to make healthier foods more accessible to kids and family.

      • Libby (grandma)

        I agree Kelly. When i was a child in the ’50’s my mom was home to cook dinner every night and fix breakfast every morning. We always ate healthy food.This is not a reality in our time. We need to make easy to prepare or prepared healthy food that too busy parents can purchase reasonably for their families, not just the kids.Maybe fast food restaurants and grocery stores could hire nutritionists to work with their businesses to plan heathy cost effective
        fast meals.

    • Painfully. Slow. Progress.

      I see what you’re saying, but I didn’t mean we should starve the kid. I think if we impose high taxes on unhealthy foods, and thus drive down sales (and profits), it will incentivize businesses to invest in healthier alternatives because of their higher profit margins. As competition for the more profitable, healthier food market increases, the prices on the kinds of foods we want our kids eating will come down, thereby shifting the “poor man’s food” from the dollar menu to the “dollar diced celery” 😉 It’s a market manipulation tactic that I think is much more long term.

      Also, we can’t forget that there are other, healthier affordable foods out there- the reason people tend to choose fast food is it’s fast *and* cheap- if you remove the cheap, suddenly it’s not such a great option.

  • Joe T.

    Great topic, PSP. Will give you my thoughts this weekend…

  • Sandbox

    i suspect the food nutrition pyramid does not have the same shape as the food subsidies pyramid…

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