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.