Friday, December 01, 2006

Food Czar, Bodegas and Broccoli: The Need for a Health Corps

In today's NY Sun the always provocative Andrew Wolf writes sarcastically about the decision by the mayor and council speaker to seek to appoint a food czar. Wolf's position is that the city is acting paternalistically in its belief that only through the intervention of a benevolent city government will the poor folks be taught to eat what's good for them.

Wolf points out that in this effort the city is singling out the neighborhood bodega as the prime culprit in the unhealthy food options available to New Yorkers. He goes on to say, and we applaud his sentiment, that bodegas "are a wonderful institutions that help make New York so livable." Wolf goes on to stress that, "The administration and the council simply can't resist the paternalistic agenda of making choices for the poor that they are surely incapable of making for themselves."

Well, this is a bit more complex than Wolf would allow. Clearly, with the disparate rates of obesity-related disease in poorer neighborhoods, poor health choices are being made. The real issue here is the question of whether a paternalistic government intervention will help to change the course for folks who are being beguiled by sugary advertisements and the proliferation of fast food choices in their communities.

It is our belief that change needs to be developed from the ground up and if government does have a role to play, and we believe that it does, that role should be conceived as a catalytic one-designed to generate grass roots health activism. In the words of the reinventing government crowd, the city should look to steer and not row. The rowing should be in the community where young people and their families begin to take charge of insuring the spread of healthier life-styles in their communities.

This is what we have described as the demand side of the equation. Awareness, education and the resultant activism in the neighborhoods of this city. As Wolf points out he has never been in a bodega that didn't sell diet coke, and we will attest to the fact that if you're going to buy one of those cans in a bodega you should look carefully at the expiration date since, precisely because of a lagging demand, those cans languish in the coolers until way after their sell date.

This is why the editorial in the NY Times this morning on advertising for healthier food misses the point. The industry effort to advertise healthier food will not be successful until the root causes of the appeal of these treats is addressed. There is in our opinion a psycho-social dynamic here that is aided and abetted by the advertisers but was not created by them. The foods our filling some underlying unmet needs that relate to the conditions under which people live.

Which is exactly why the Health Corps concept that we have been promoting is so crucial. The HC looks to get right at the consciousness and behavior of young people with the objective of converting them into change agents for healthier living. The dynamic Dr. Oz has spearheaded this effort and what we need to see now is the connection of the government, the food industry and the Health Corps in a comprehensive program to change the health facts on the ground in the city's poorest communities.