Texting Obese People to 'Eat Fruit': Silly Stunt or Desperate Measure?

Conservatives are ridiculing one local government's novel approach to tackling obesity.

(Photo: Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

Jason Best is a regular contributor to TakePart who has worked for Gourmet and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

It’s the sort of headline nanny-state-fearing conservatives love to howl about: “Council Spends £10,000 Texting Obese Residents Telling Them to ‘Eat Fruit.’ ” But is the attempt by one local government in the U.K. to battle its community’s burgeoning obesity epidemic really that absurd?

Here’s the story: The city council for Stoke-on-Trent, a town of about 240,000 some 50 miles from Liverpool, has launched a pilot program to send obese residents health-conscious text messages, urging them to, say, use the stairs instead of the elevator or (yes) eat more fruit. The cost comes out to the equivalent of about $16,500 for 10 weeks, reports the conservative Daily Express, which rather predictably scoffs at using taxpayer money to remind “fat people” to do what is “just common sense.”

The right-wing paper has no trouble finding an outraged man on the street to vent his indignation: “It is insane that they are spending 10 grand on sending texts,” 38-year-old James Robinson tells the paper. “It is a joke, surely there are better ways to spend money helping people lose weight.”

This is all, on a smaller scale, reminiscent of conservatives' stateside attacks on the Affordable Care Act and, more specifically, Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign. In 2010, Sean Hannity decried the first lady’s efforts to tackle the obesity crisis as “taking the nanny state to a new level” and predicted that the government would soon be “fining us for eating salt.” For his part, an even-more-paranoid-than-usual Rush Limbaugh warned that the White House would no doubt start monitoring his show to “report” listeners who are “part of the obesity problem.”

Yet it’s telling that, when I looked at the Daily Express story, the top “related article” linked at the bottom of the page is about a five-year-old girl who had to be taken into custody by social workers because she weighed in at a staggering 140 pounds. That story begins: “Shocked politicians said last night that it was a ‘sad sign of our times’ as Britain faced up to an obesity epidemic among schoolchildren.”

OK, so surely we can agree that sending obese residents encouraging reminders to make healthy choices is better (and less expensive) than taking overweight kids into custody, right?

It’s just another reminder of how extreme conservative paranoia (or, more cynically put, a “paranoia” hyped to boost ratings and readership) is thoroughly perverting our views on government, even when dealing with an indisputable public health crisis like obesity. Even the most benign attempts by officials at just about any level of any government to do something about an epidemic that is poised to take as horrendous a toll on our health as smoking did a generation ago is met with the "slippery slope to socialism/food police/fast-food inquisition” argument.

“I should be free to stuff myself silly and have to be dumped in my grave with a backhoe!” That seems to be the argument, à la “You can pry that Baconator from my cold, dead hands.”

Fine. But what the story in the Daily Express conveniently glosses over is that the program in Stoke-on-Trent is a pilot program—and no one is being forced into it. There is no city registry of obese residents, no angular, trim, severe Minister of Food Police tracking what the locals weigh. Residents are being sought to voluntarily sign up to receive the texts, and part of the money being spent will study the outcome—i.e., asking “does it work?” and “should we expand it?”

Who knows? Maybe daily reminders to do healthy things will help people lose weight—and if it doesn’t, then scrap the program. But in an era when Coke and McDonald's are spending untold millions to convince the world that you can be as fit as an Olympic athlete and still gorge on their high-calorie products, a few thousands dollars spent on texts reminding you that fruits and veggies are healthier choices seems like a drop in the bucket.

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