A few months ago I wrote a post about my favorite kinds of junk food, and I said this:
"If Karl Marx were alive and amongst us today, he would say that cheap junk food, not religion, is the opiate of the masses. People are willing to passively accept warrantless spying by their government, drug tests from their employers, and surveillance cameras on any corner, but will get up in arms if you dare restrict their right to giant containers of sugary soda."
The recent article in the New York Times Magazine about the science behind addictive junk food got me thinking about this fact again. Until recently, overconsumption of junk food was a cheap vice that was completely socially acceptable. Folks might frown at smoking or judge someone for drinking to excess, but chomping through a whole bag of Doritos and washing it down with a liter of Mountain Dew would hardly draw much notice. Not only that, this was something that I did as a child all the time while having parents who would have taken me to the woodshed if I drank or smoked. A friend of mine who grew up in a very religious, evangelical environment always likes to talk about how overeating, i.e. gluttony, is the one acceptable vice among devout Christians.
Growing up as I did in a lower-middle class household governed by cheap parents, junk food was one of the few things we were allowed to indulge in. My mom would bring home bulging bags of Brachs Pick-a-Mix candy from the grocery store every week, along with crates of soda. (Since it was cheaper, many varieties of Shasta were always on hand.) My father loved pretzels and Fritos, and cracked open endless cartons of Whoppers. Once I was old enough to be drawing an allowance, I would go to the drug store across from my junior high and buy a handful of peppermint patties and mini-Reese's cups just about every day, without a shred of parental disapproval. My family is not alone in this. Junk food in this country is cheap, plentiful, and always at hand. As I mentioned before, our whole agricultural policy is centered around the proposition that a bag of Cheetos ought to cost as much as a bunch of spinach.
In the past thirty years, those of us who are not in the upper-strata in the taxpayers have been getting squeezed. College now means decades of debt, medical bills cause bankruptcy, and wages are stagnant. However, potato chips, candy bars, and Big Macs are still as cheap as ever. Having another frustrating day working your no security, shit-pay job where you have no voice? Just crack open a soda and chomp down on some chips and candy until your body warms up to the sugar and carbs and your troubles are forgotten.
We should be doing more to understand this country's consumption of junk food as a class-based phenomenon, and not of the "the proles are so dumb and uneducated and stupid they're eating themselves to death" variety I keep hearing from affluent urban liberals. I've changed my eating habits, but I understand why someone might be upset over losing the Big Gulp. What right does a billionaire like Bloomberg have to deny a simple, if unhealthy, pleasure to a regular person who has so little in life that they can afford to indulge in? Instead of just berating consumers of junk food, we ought to hold the people who make and market it more accountable, and to question the cruel, unequal economic system that has made the masses seek an opiate in junk food in the first place.