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Transforming our food culture — a matter of life and death


With over 170,000 dead in the U.S. as a result of COVID-19, it is clear that we must fix the broken food culture that is predisposing so many to an early death.

We know and have accepted — willingly or not — that the lack of affordable access to healthy food is leading many to die from the ravages of COVID-19, and that this inequity falls along racial and economic lines. Of those suffering from underlying conditions — including diet-related diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure, or heart disease — 20 percent died after contracting COVID-19. Less than 2 percent of people without those conditions died. 

But the reality is this: Junk food is cheap, plentiful and easy to access, even though our nation produces an ample supply of high-quality produce and plant-based products.  

Along comes COVID-19 and at once, the inequity within our food system is not just glaring, but it is deadly. These facts must serve as a societal kick in the pants to the government, civil society, parents, teachers, children and employees alike. If we want to adequately tackle COVID-19, we must revamp our food system for human health and immunity. But how? 

Here are three tangible steps that actors across our food system can take now.

Market food as though it matters to health.  

Our very American love of freedom spurs us to defend supersized junk food while resisting regulations that might rein in the worst of our impulses. Built for taste, but also for profit, convenience and shelf life, our food culture churns out food that is ultra-processed, calorie-dense and loaded with refined carbohydrates. Our taste buds crave the very things that are worst for us — products with salt, fat and sugar, which are then mass-produced, mass-marketed and disproportionately geared toward the economically disadvantaged.

Other nations have taken significant measures to curb junk food by attacking marketing dollars. The U.K. and its Prime Minister Boris Johnson — following his recent COVID-19 scare — are prepared to roll out strict regulations on junk food advertising. The U.S. continues to be among the few industrialized nations that lack coherent food policy and food leadership. 

Just last year, the UCONN Rudd Center for Policy and Obesity found that 80 percent of ad dollars from the biggest food companies in the U.S. were spent on their unhealthiest offerings ― including sugary drinks, fast food, candy and other snacks. And much of this spending on advertising is geared toward minority populations, especially youth. Even companies with diverse portfolios of healthy and unhealthy brands in multiple categories almost exclusively target Hispanic and Black consumers with ads for their unhealthy brands. 

Innovation in the pricing of food.

The food sector doesn’t lack innovation but it is driven primarily by sales, not health. This leads to innovation in salt, fat, sugar and refined carbs. Burgers with higher calorie toppings and pizza crusts stuffed anew — much of it marketed, again, to and destined for economically disadvantaged communities. Meanwhile, too much of the innovation in “better-for-you” foods is aimed at those who are at the tip-top of the socio-economic pyramid. What we need is innovation in behavioral economics. 

The private sector has an opportunity now to explore dynamic pricing for the better-for-you foods so that people living in disadvantaged communities can access and afford foods that will help them live healthy lives. Dynamic pricing means higher prices in advantaged communities, and lower prices in disadvantaged communities, but the whole remains profitable. The result, quite simply, would be that the same week’s worth of groceries of healthy options for a wealthy family should cost more than for those who are economically disadvantaged. For a society that pays dearly for the outputs of this broken food system — through costly and deadly health outcomes — it’s time to shift the balance.

Make cooking at home the new normal. 

COVID-19 has forced even the most reluctant among us to become our own personal chef. While many gripe about the banality of home cooking (and the inevitable dishwashing that follows), this shift has the potential to reshape our national relationship with cooking. Studies have shown that “cooking dinner frequently at home is associated with consumption of a healthier diet whether or not one is trying to lose weight.”

If we don’t care about staying healthy and cooking now when our immunity is more important than ever and we are eating all of our meals at home, when will we? We call on teachers, school systems and parents to bring nutrition education to the classroom — Zoom or otherwise — for the first time. Let’s make sure the next generation understands the connection between food and health. 

Fundamentally, any meaningful change requires leadership — from the government, the private sector, our education system and ourselves. Healthy food has power but like so many things, access is limited to the few. COVID-19 has given us an opportunity to reset our food system in the name of health and equity. It should not have taken a global pandemic to arrive at this point but now the moment is too crucial to waste. 

Nancy E. Roman is president and CEO of Michelle Obama’s Partnership for a Healthier America. Follow her on Twitter @nancyroman1

Tags coronavirus crisis COVID-19 Food insecurity Health care health disparity healthy food heart disease Junk food Michelle Obama Obesity in the United States Pandemic Public health underlying health conditions

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