Why has obesity in the U.S. doubled in the last 25 years, and how will solving this epidemic build democracy? Those are the questions that Dr. Marion Nestle grappled with at Georgetown University this week and, contrary to popular belief, the answer isn't that Americans are less active than twenty years ago. Rather, Dr. Nestle argues that changes in the way we produce and distribute food have led Americans to consume hundreds more calories a day, despite constant messaging about choosing "healthy food products." And she argues that the solution is not just changing personal choices but changing our food system, starting in each of our communities.
As Dr. Nestle (NYU professor and renowned nutrition expert) sees it, the problem isn't a lack of individual responsibility but a "food environment," driven by politics and economics, that encourages ubiquitous eating, bigger portions, and more junk food. While this may make for a profitable food industry, it also adds up to billions spent every year treating disease, subsidizing factory farms, and cleaning up air and water pollution.
As the food industry struggles to make a profit despite increased competition and skyrocketing food supplies, the industry (like any business) needs to sell more and more of its product. Consumers are confused, overwhelmed, and short on time, so we turn to foods that claim to do everything from boost immunity to aid childhood mental development; we shop for processed food-like products and look for the biggest bang for our buck, instead of making healthy and informed decisions.
So how can we do better? For starters, by eating real food, and then by voting with our forks. Choosing fruits and vegetables over processed food is a great step, but it is only when we demand that the food industry label its products accurately and that the FDA verify nutritional claims on food packaging that we will get food that we know is safe and healthy for us and our children.
But avoiding processed and unhealthy foods won't guarantee good food for all. We need policies to encourage improved access to fresh and healthy foods in schools and underserved neighborhoods, more stringent regulation on marketing to children, and changes in our agricultural subsidy system to support healthy foods, not just corn-based processed food-like products. Such changes will not only make for healthier individuals, but healthier communities and a healthier planet as well.
The more I learn about our food system - and the emerging alternatives - the more I agree with Dr. Nestle and her colleagues like Will Allen of Growing Power and Alice Waters in California: growing the new food movement is about growing democracy. It's about empowering all people to have a voice in how their food is produced, make healthy decisions, and have access to safe and healthy food as a basic resource. It's about building community, educating kids, and democratizing good health.
That's why synagogues are planting gardens and starting CSAs, and why celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's TED project aims to teach every American child about healthy eating habits. It's why First Lady Obama has made childhood obesity and healthy eating her major initiative, and why she is calling on schools, parents, and grocery manufacturers to "Step it Up." When we all take steps together, forks in hand, we can begin to build a more democratic and more just food system. And that's food politics!