I like cultural paradoxes. They often give us a keyhole view onto the vast room of the “unthought,” i.e., those scarcely-noticed prejudices and instincts that color thought and action. So, in that voyeuristic spirit, I thought I would draw attention to the “Bronx Paradox,” the puzzling coincidence of hunger and obesity chronicled recently in the New York Times:
The Bronx has the city’s highest rate of obesity, with residents facing an estimated 85 percent higher risk of being obese than people in Manhattan, according to Andrew G. Rundle, an epidemiologist at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University.
But the Bronx also faces stubborn hunger problems. According to a survey released in January by the Food Research and Action Center, an antihunger group, nearly 37 percent of residents in the 16th Congressional District, which encompasses the South Bronx, said they lacked money to buy food at some point in the past 12 months. That is more than any other Congressional district in the country and twice the national average, 18.5 percent, in the fourth quarter of 2009.
Hunger and obesity are now so closely linked that the Department of Agriculture dropped the word “hungry” from its official reports in 2006. It now prefers the term “food insecure.” Predictably, the experts whom the New York Times consults lay most of the blame for “food insecurity” on certain features of the South Bronx: the scarcity of fresh vegetables, the ubiquity of fried chicken, the prevalence of overtime employment—in short, all those factors that fall within the metrics of public health and social planning.
One might ask, however, how much promise such analyses hold. Are people unhealthy because vegetables are scarce? Or are vegetables scarce because people are unhealthy?
I feel that it’s almost too obvious to point out, but the Bronx Paradox seems another window onto the moral drama peculiar to our age: material hypertrophy and spiritual atrophy. The close connection between obesity and poverty suggests that even the poorest in developed countries have access—quantitatively speaking—to more than enough food. But there exists also a qualitative dimension to food, one unaddressed by material abundance. A fully human diet would require that we discern healthful foods, establish personal sovereignty over our appetites, and humanize our consumption—such that meals come to express both personal and social value. We do the latter by marking days for feasting and fasting, by observing etiquette, by conferring seats of honor, etc. Reading between the lines of our article, however, we can gather that the “food insecure” often eat impulsively, compulsively, and alone. These problems touch the spiritual core of the person and, as such, resist the remedies of policy and planning.
It’s all part of the same picture. When war-prevention rests on the threat of “mutually assured destruction” rather than on solidarity and diplomacy, the world is “peace insecure.” When AIDS-prevention rests on condoms rather than on chastity and mutual respect, the world is “AIDS insecure.” And, when hunger-prevention rests on the abundance of food rather than on moderation and genuine festivity, the world is “food insecure.”
Surely it is here, in the domain of moral and spiritual development, that the Church must make her distinctive contribution to human “security”. And for this reason, regrettably, all crises of moral credibility in the Church turn out to be crises for humanity as well.