Choose Healthy Food Policies, Not Just Healthy Food

, , director, Center for Science & Democracy | October 24, 2014, 9:20 am EDT
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It is not uncommon to hear people decry the endless array of junk food in front of us in nearly every store and public place. But what do we do about it, other than sometimes search high and low for something other than sugar, fat and salt to snack on?

That vast landscape of empty calories didn’t just happen, or result from the “free market.” It is a result of years of public policy decisions on agriculture, community planning, communications, government purchasing, the management of public spaces, school lunches, and more. If we, as a democratic society, have set public policies that lead to unhealthy diets for many Americans, then we also have the power to change those policies.

Our new Healthy Food Policy toolkit will help you get involved in making real policy changes for your community. The toolkit is a guide to the influences and decisions that shape access to healthy food. Our goal is to demystify the often overwhelming world of food policy, with practical tips and resources concerning the policies that effect you and your community. With this toolkit, you can learn how to:

  • Identify what policies affect food in your community
  • Navigate key issues related to healthy food policy
  • Recognize where decisions are made and who makes them
  • Build strong relationships within your community to support your involvement
  • Take effective action to make sure your voice is heard

Many companies that produce processed food like to claim that it is not their products that are unhealthy and lead to the rapidly increasing incidence of obesity and chronic diet related diseases. Instead, they assert, it is the personal choices that people make. It seems the essence of that argument is that people freely choose to eat unhealthy processed foods and unhealthy portion sizes of many foods.

That argument doesn’t resonate with me for many reasons. It would seem to me that if diet is all a matter of choice, then there wouldn’t be much reason to advertise food products. Advertising is designed to influence choices, not present options. Otherwise, why are all those happy dancing people holding products on my TV screen? Food companies could just show a product name and wrap everything in brown paper just so I knew it was out there if I so choose to buy it.

And the kinds of processed food available are also not simply a response to market demand.  Our public policy—as well as industry product design and marketing efforts—manipulate both supply and demand. We vote our representatives in, or out. But we can also speak up and tell officials at all levels of government what we want. Public policies on the food available in schools, public places, and government facilities can be changed. Public policies impact where and what fresh food is available in neighborhoods and communities all across the country, from zoning for farmers’ markets to the location of and transportation to full service grocery stores. Public programs to help people in need include food policies. And there are many other examples.

There is strong scientific evidence that diet is directly impacting public health. We know there are negative impacts of eating too much sugar and other “empty” calories. We know that more fruits and vegetables can dramatically change their health. And we know that overconsumption of heavily processed foods has increased obesity rates and resulted in major increases in diseases associated with “metabolic syndrome” from type 2 diabetes to cancer.

Our toolkit illustrates with examples from across the country the changes that are happening in cities and towns. Philadelphia is working to increase access to full service grocery stores in parts of the city that desperately need them so that residents can choose healthier foods for their families. Other cities have followed suit. The Los Angeles Food Policy Council has created a Good Food Purchasing Pledge for large institutions impacting 750,000 meals a day.  And working with USDA, Hampden County, MA, launched a pilot program to help people enrolled in nutrition assistance programs purchase healthier food.

These are just a few examples, but in our democracy, we can try new ways. We can change course. We can choose a societal goal of greater public health through a healthier diet, rather than maximum calories and profit. We can all have a say in the policies we care about, and we all care about food and health. So let’s speak up!

Posted in: Food and Agriculture, Science and Democracy Tags: , ,

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  • Thanks for your comments and I agree these are important points. The links in the post to UCS materials talk about what is “healthy food”, but a good starting point is consideration of the approved US dietary guidelines. While these are certainly developed as a compromise, they do give a sense of what a healthy diet consists of. With regard to defining processed food, in the post I am referring to food that is a product of the industrial process, containing added ingredients such as sugar or high fructose corn syrup and other additives. In addition, highly processed food in this context has very high caloric content but is low in nutrients. And for the record, I don’t think the concept of sustainability is nebulous, though the word is used far too loosely. In my thinking, the Brundtland Commission gave a clear definition in 1987.

  • Tanya

    You refer to “processed food” without specifying those ‘processes’ that make it so. Nearly all foods, even home-grown, are processed to some extent by time they are eaten. What, exactly, classifies one food as “processed” and another food not? There must be clarity on this issue if we are to make a coherent case for playing favorites among all the various foods that are out there. Please supply a concise bullet list of “processes” and how foods are to be ranked accordingly.

    • F. P.

      Great question! Also need to know if “processed” is the only criteria determining if any given food is “healthy food” or if it is something else (assuming that would be “unhealthy food” but that’s sounds libelous at best). Our cause is not well served when we casually toss about nebulous terms like “processed”, “healthy” and even “sustainable”. I agree we need to be much more exacting in our choice of terminology if we are to prevail in our arguments against the powers that be. We too often are accused of using weasle words and moving the goal posts, charges that are very difficult to refute under the circumstances.