Choose Healthy Food Policies, Not Just Healthy Food

October 24, 2014 | 9:20 am
Andrew Rosenberg
Former Contributor

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!