Something strange is happening in America around food. We now know from science that many of our most debilitating health problems — from heart disease to diabetes — are caused by the food we put into our bodies. Yet as a nation we seem powerless to do anything about it. We hear prescriptions that we should exercise more, but is a lack of exercise really what’s making us sick and tired?
Americans eat far too few fruits and vegetables, and far too much sugar, salt and other commodity ingredients that are not particularly healthy for people to eat, but are hidden in foods filling the grocery-store aisles. These ingredients can have profound impacts on our health and well-being.
A recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists calculated that the medical cost of treating just one of these diet-driven killers — heart disease and stroke — was as much as $94 billion in 2010, and was expected to triple by 2030. Clearly, the economics of our national food policy — which heavily subsidizes ingredients that go into processed food — are becoming untenable.
People need access to good food
Science is pointing toward a solution for Americans to reverse this problem and live longer, healthier, more satisfying and more productive lives, but to do that we need ready, normal, commodity-like access to the kinds of foods that will help achieve this goal. For example, if Americans ate just one more serving of fruits or vegetables per day, we would save more than 30,000 lives and $5 billion in medical costs each year.
So why is it that our federal food policy isn’t taking that science into account and encouraging farmers and the food industry to foster a system that makes better food more plentiful and promotes healthier eating, instead of making us sick with processed foods? The answers are as old as lobbying itself.
From dietary guidelines to agricultural subsidy programs, from government purchasing to community planning, policies that are important to creating the food environment we live in are too often driven by the desire to sell more food, instead of healthier food.
The result? The other night one of us had a friend over. We grilled packaged hamburgers. They were the best-tasting burgers the friend had ever had. Later we looked at the ingredients: ground beef, and high-fructose corn syrup, added to make you want more.
So what would a healthier food environment look like if we did use the knowledge we derive from science? The Minnesota Food Charter is one example. It opens up the decision-making process to citizens, creating community networks so that all of us can shape the policies that bring food to our tables, instead of relying on agribusiness and a failed federal food policy to determine our diets.
Another solution lies in sharing what works. Over the next few days, the Union of Concerned Scientists is collaborating with the University of Minnesota School of Public Health to bring top food scientists from around the country together with community activists, policymakers and other thought leaders to examine the policy changes that can be made at local, state, and federal levels to make our food environment healthier. A free public forum, scheduled from 4:30 to 7 p.m. on May 6 at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, will allow engaged citizens to hear these experts’ concerns, ask them questions and exchange ideas for change.
We don’t have to be getting sick, fat and tired from our food, and if the federal policies are stuck, we can work locally to make things better. We can change our policies to meet the challenges we face — and make more accessible, more affordable and healthier food and food policy available to nourish not only our children, but all of us. The prize is longer, more productive, healthier lives, and lower costs.
Don Shelby to moderate
To be a part of this national discussion, we encourage you to attend the forum, moderated by former TV news anchor Don Shelby. If you cannot attend in person, we encourage you to join more than 1,200 people who have already signed up for the webcast. By bringing top public health and nutrition scientists together with activists, journalists and the public, we hope to foster a national discussion that can begin to find new solutions to the problem of basing our broken food policy back on science. Your voice is important to that conversation.
Shawn Lawrence Otto is the producer of the U.S. presidential science debates. His book “Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America“ won the 2012 Minnesota Book Award. Andrew Rosenberg is the director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
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