What will it take to transform the food system we have in the United States today—with all its misaligned priorities, junk food, and diet-related diseases—into a healthier one for all Americans? That’s the subject of “Science, Democracy, and a Healthy Food Policy,” which UCS will co-host with the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health in Minneapolis on May 6-7.
We’re delighted to be convening this event—the latest in our Lewis M. Branscomb Science and Democracy Forum series—in Minnesota, a state at the epicenter of food and farming concerns, and one in which creative, passionate people and organizations are innovating in ways that may serve as models for the rest of the country.
Healthy food access: It’s complicated
In particular, I see a great deal of work being done in the North Star State to improve affordable access to healthy foods.
This is a thorny issue. While healthy foods aren’t necessarily always more expensive than junk food, a recent meta-analysis by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health showed that on average, the healthiest diets cost about $1.50 more per day than the least healthy ones. That can be prohibitive for low-income families.
And the comparison assumes that people have equal physical access to those more expensive healthy foods, but for many that’s not the case. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service estimates that 23.5 million Americans live in areas lacking access to fresh foods. More than half of those people are low-income, and some 2.3 million of them lack access to a vehicle. Furthermore, many Americans lack basic fresh food preparation skills and equipment, further limiting their ability to make healthy choices.
Of course, there are good reasons why foods like fruits and vegetables are more expensive than unhealthy processed foods. That mostly has to do with the food and farm policy choices our lawmakers have made in recent decades. Different policy choices could reverse the situation, making healthy foods more plentiful, accessible, and affordable than junk food. As a nation, we made a little progress toward that end in the most recent federal farm bill. But we still have a long way to go.
Which brings us to the question we’ve invited experts and advocates to wrestle with next month in Minneapolis:
What policy approaches, based on scientific evidence from fields such as public health, economics, sociology and others, are needed to create a healthy food environment?
Improving healthy food access for all Minnesotans
In the meantime, it’s worth noting that our host state of Minnesota seems to be ahead of the curve in work on the ground to improve access to healthy foods. Here are just a few of the great examples we’ve been hearing about:
- Like hundreds of farmers markets across the country, the Saint Paul Downtown Farmers Market has taken steps to ensure that low-income residents have a variety of payment options. The market accepts Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits electronically. Several Saint Paul Farmers’ Markets also accept WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) fruit and vegetable vouchers.
- Also in Saint Paul, the public schools have joined 33 other school districts in a national partnership called School Food FOCUS (Food Options for Children in Urban Schools), which is working to transform school lunches to support students’ academic achievement and lifelong health while also supporting nearby farming communities. The Saint Paul Public Schools are purchasing hundreds of thousands of pounds of local produce, making salad dressings from scratch, and pioneering healthy lunch recipes to meet new standards ahead of schedule.
- Across the river in Minneapolis, the folks at Gardening Matters are helping connect local residents with garden plots and training resources. Next month, they expect to distribute more than 30,000 seedlings and 25,000 seed packets to support local residents in growing their own food.
- The Twin Cities’ Youth Farm offers year-round programs for youth ages 9 to 24, planting gardens, training future urban farmers, and providing food to five diverse neighborhoods through a CSA and community dinners.
- In Hugo, MN, Dream of Wild Health (Peta Wakan Tipi) is a 10-acre Native-operated farm that keeps Native American traditions and rare heirloom plant species alive, providing educational programs for youth and families and supplying organic vegetables to Twin Cities’ farmers markets, local food pantries, and elder centers.
- The Minnesota Project in Saint Paul is working on all aspects of sustainability, including a number of food projects. Their “Fruits of the City” program harvested 127,000 pounds of surplus fruit from local orchards and urban backyards in 2013, donating the bounty to more than 30 food shelves.
- Our partners at the University of Minnesota are also doing their part. Since 2009, the University’s Extension service has partnered with Share our Strength to offer “Cooking Matters,” a program that empowers Minnesota families at risk of hunger with the skills, knowledge and confidence to make healthy, delicious and affordable meals. And for students at the university, there’s even a one-credit class called Cooking on a Student’s Budget that aims to give students the basic skills to kick the ramen and pizza habit and instead fuel their studies with healthy and affordable home-cooked meals.
Join UCS for “Science, Democracy, and a Healthy Food Policy”
I’m excited about traveling to Minnesota in a couple of weeks and taking up these issues with experts, advocates, and concerned citizens from around the state and across the country. I hope you’ll join me there May 6, in person or via webcast, for our public forum.