Sunday, November 05, 2006

Toward a Healthier Food Policy

All of the furor over the Department of Health's trans fat and menu labeling initiatives tends to obscure the underlying philosophical issue: Is the use of government edicts the best possible approach to the undeniable epidemic of obesity? In our opinion it is not.

For instance, government has required nutritional information on all food packaging for at least thirty years, with no discernible effect on the eating patterns of those low income communities that are clearly the concern of policy makers. At the same time, middle and upper income Americans have been willing conscripts in a veritable health revolution.

As Greg Beato's rant in the latest Reason magazine points out, "While it is easy to get fat in a world where $10 can buy you approximately five pounds of burritos at Taco Bell, it is also never easier to get thin." With fitness networks running 24/7 and "infomercial Adonises" pitching elliptical trainers, "you have an epidemic of fitness with no historical precedent."

All of which is underscored in the latest Department of Health statistics. Obesity is certainly much less of a concern in the city's wealthier environs than it is in the East Harlem or East New York (about half as bad in the Upper West Side versus Central Harlem for instance). But if we can create a health awareness in these areas, and the movement of a store like Whole Foods into the city is a good example of the recognition of a new demand curve, why not in the less affluent areas?

It is our view that the injection of government mandates do not tend to restructure anyone's mindset. We need to focus on the hearts and minds side of the equation, from which will follow the food industry's own restructuring of its marketing strategies. In fact, there is something unmistakably patronizing about this approach to low income communities (one that aggrandizes the power of the public health community at the expense of the will needed to promote change in lower income communities).