Jonathan Neman really seemed to think he was on to something. Last week, in a long post now deleted on LinkedIn, the CEO and co-founder of upscale salad chain Sweetgreen laid out a topic that may seem a bit remote for a restaurant executive: how to end the pandemic. “No vaccine or mask will save us,” he wrote. (It should be noted that vaccines have so far been shown to be miraculously effective in saving those who receive them.) Instead, he lamented that Americans are just too fat to survive the reality of COVID-19. which, according to him, could be treated with “health mandates”.
Neman did not go into much detail on how health should be mandated, or what such mandates would mean for people with disabilities, although national improvement efforts that focus on those designated as physiologically undesirable are are historically badly ended for them. He made a proposal: the federal government could decide what types of food Americans are allowed to eat. Specifically, he argued, the government could ban or heavily tax certain foods, including any type of processed food, a category so unnecessarily broad that it would wipe out virtually anything in the interior aisles of the city. average grocery store, not to mention a lot. of what is sold by Sweetgreen’s competitors.
Neman faced backlash after Vice‘s Edward Ongweso Jr. reported on the post. The CEO apologized to Sweetgreen staff in an email and, later, in a public meeting with employees, admitted that indeed “Sweetgreen alone will not solve this problem. Salads alone won’t solve this, ”according to a recording obtained by Vice. Even so, Neman defended the intent of the proposal. And Ongweso has since found evidence that Neman previously advocated similar measures within the company. (Sweetgreen did not respond to multiple interview requests for this article.)
It is, of course, almost hilariously practical for a man who has made millions of dollars out of expensive lettuce to believe that the future of the republic might depend on the federal government cramming people with the food he already sells; that salad is the perfect medicine for an incredibly contagious respiratory virus might not be a trustworthy argument from a literal salad millionaire. More interesting, however, is how much of Neman’s saving ramblings reveal a nefarious health belief that America’s wealthiest and most privileged class has long whitewashed in a good way: that the people who, unlike them, end up sick or poor have simply refused to make the right choices and help themselves. To assume that the health care crisis in the United States could be solved if everyone just had to eat salad is not just lazy and wrong; it perpetuates an attitude that worsens health and the pandemic for millions of people.
As proof of his idea, Neman offered an argument that is often cited by people seeking to reframe America’s pandemic failures as those of individual responsibility instead of institutional decay: According to a CDC study, 79% of people hospitalized with severe COVID-19 in the United States in 2020 had a BMI classified as overweight or obese. The percentage is alarming in a vacuum, and the CDC says high body weight is a risk factor for severe COVID-19. But it’s far from clear that this is a major risk factor – the CDC’s own figures suggest that nearly 74% of all Americans over the age of 20 fall in the same range of BMI, which means that even if weight had no correlation or effect on outcomes, you would still expect about three-quarters of people hospitalized with COVID-19 to have high BMI.
The uselessness of BMI as a health indicator is a fight for another day, but even if you leave out confounding factors that might help explain the five point difference – for example, that poor people are more likely to have a high BMI, delay seeking expensive medical treatments, and work in person that expose them to coronavirus – that hardly justifies making cookies illegal. If a bodily variation results in a difference in COVID-19 risk, that doesn’t mean it needs to be removed by force. If you don’t agree, I’d love to hear your plan for dealing with men, who are much more likely to be hospitalized or die after catching COVID-19 than women.
Neman added to his LinkedIn post a link to a CNN article that details a report on the global distribution of deaths from COVID-19 in 2020. The report, released in March by the World Obesity Federation, found that the overwhelming majority of deaths have occurred in countries where more than half of the population has an obese or overweight BMI. CNN has used Vietnam’s impressive track record against the pandemic and the country’s low obesity rates as a foil for Americans’ own failures, both in the pandemic and on a large scale.
But there is plenty of evidence that Vietnam has not contained the pandemic because its population is thin. The country has relied on types of interventions that are unprofitable for outside companies: proactive government action, robust contact tracing, strategic testing, free food and accommodation for those who need to be quarantined. Vietnam also benefits from a population whose median age is six years younger than that of the United States, a significant difference when the worst consequences of an illness are more closely associated with old age than anything else.
The CNN article omits any information on Vietnam’s COVID-19 response or other risk-mitigating population differences. It also doesn’t reveal that the World Obesity Federation is an advocacy group that receives funds from companies that profit when people are pressured to lose weight: a number of drug companies that already sell weight loss drugs. or have new ones in clinical trials, as well as WW, the diet company formerly known as Weight Watchers.
Neman is right about one fundamental thing though, which is what helps these kinds of ideas gain acceptance even among those they might harm, or among those who are theoretically opposed to state punishment for ill health: fresh, high-quality, nutritionally dense foods play a painfully minor role in the diets of millions of Americans. Before the government starts slapping chicken nuggets at you, it would be helpful to ask yourself why, beyond the apparent belief that most Americans are too dumb or gluttonous to have a choice about what they eat. For many of them, the choices do not exist. Research has shown that the poor know what they lack in their diet, and they really want to have these things. Yet the gap between the quality of diets of high-income people and low-income people continued to widen.
The problem is not them. High-quality ingredients are expensive and time-consuming to prepare when available, and people with low wages and long hours – those most likely to have suffered the catastrophic effects of the pandemic, regardless of their weight – don’t have a lot of time or money to waste. Sweetgreen and restaurants like this exist precisely because so many Americans are short on time, but they only address the problem of food preparation for those who can regularly buy $ 15 vegetable and grain bowls. People who now have to eat frozen dinners and the McDonald’s dollar menu wouldn’t start eating salads topped with salmon and roasted vegetables if their current food sources were removed, even if they wanted to. A lot of them would just be hungry, which I guess is one way to lose weight.
Requiring people to prove they made all of the right choices before their lives were valued underlies virtually all cruelties in American health. Many people take no apparent shame in asserting that those without full-time jobs do not deserve the same access to medical care as those who are more economically productive, or that people with drug addiction deserve to die or die. to rot in prison for their disciplinary failures, or that hospitals should deny life-saving COVID-19 care to people who have not yet been vaccinated.
The people who benefit the most from this belief system tend to be the ones who have turned their personal advantages into even greater personal wealth; they were born at third base and swear to have hit a triple. One of Neman’s most prolific ancestors in this regard is Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey, who has spoken out publicly against affordable healthcare since at least 2009 and said in January, during the winter peak. death from the pandemic, that health care would not be necessary if people just made the right lifestyle choices, and that medicine would not fix things; his father, who was an investor in Whole Foods, was also the CEO of a healthcare company. Neman and his Sweetgreen business partners met while studying at Georgetown University, and their parents, who helped fund Sweetgreen’s founding, all own their own businesses. It’s Marie-Antoinette telling hungry French peasants to eat cake, except the cake story is apocryphal, and this one happened so that anyone could see it on LinkedIn.
There is no place in this worldview for generosity to others, or for a core belief in the inherent value of human life. It is a policy of coercion and deprivation. Absent from Neman’s call for warrants, there was any indication that perhaps the government should use its power to ensure that no American had to choose between poor quality food and starvation; that everyone can find fresh, nutritionally dense and affordable food in their neighborhood; that people have enough time away from work to prepare meals for themselves and their families if they wish. These solutions don’t do much to bolster the superiority complex of the rich, and they likely wouldn’t be very profitable for companies that sell high-end groceries, prepared salads, diet pills, or weight loss diets. .