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Undoing the 'Food Curse': Honoring Food For What It Was Meant To Be

02/12/2014 10:09 am ET | Updated Apr 14, 2014

As we are called upon to address the complex issue of hunger in the US -- and the world -- we are increasingly faced with a mysterious paradox, a paradox that seems to have turned on its head the traditional relationship between food and hunger. We are caught in a frustrating and seemingly inescapable loop where hunger and obesity seem to go hand in hand affecting the same population. This is a true curse -- the "food curse!"

How did this happen?

While there is a direct relationship between being poor and experiencing hunger, and a trend and even a push to put more inexpensive foods into the consumer market, we are witnessing a disturbing increase in rates of obesity in the US: obesity doubled for adults in the last thirty years and showed an even more dramatic increase among children and adolescents.[1] In other parts of the world -- and in previous years -- poor and hungry people were not fat, they were skinny! We tend to maintain this image of the connection between hunger and emaciation as the exclusive sign of problems with food.

Now we are faced with adjusting to the new look of the food curse. Food, that has the sacred premise of nourishing us, is now making us unhappy and sick, at a health care cost to the American people of $190.2 billion annually!

How can this be explained?

Here again, the issue is complex but this should not deter us from pinpointing some key systemic factors that are likely to be serious contributors to the problem: 1) "Wall Street" has promoted a system moved by profit and profit alone that results in the production and unethical marketing of dangerous and unhealthy processed foods and the sophisticated manipulation of people's chemistries with little interference of any higher regulating authority;[2] and 2) the tragic combined condition of poverty and ignorance on the part of the vast majority of consumers with little evidence of systematic and sustained efforts geared towards removing the lack of knowledge and misconceptions about food. While obesity can be attributed to many factors, it is clearly disproportionately prevalent among low-income consumers who rely on low-cost foods and fast foods of poor nutritional value [3] that give them a sense of being "full" and seem to provide the most calories for a dollar.

So, how can we start addressing this problem? There are many creative ways to undo the food curse but we need two important pre-conditions that must receive universal approval:

1) Working locally to establish a national alliance: in all corners of the US, there are organizations that can work together to establish an alliance between local as well as national leaders in government and the private sector with a firm commitment by all to radically change how we talk about food, how we inform about food, the food we produce, the food that's being sold, the cost of food and the food that's being put on our table with one single objective in mind: reestablish the sacred premise of food to nourish us and keep us healthy, irrespective of our social class. [4]

2) A new call for food to be seen self-evidently as a basic human right and not a charitable handout: the same local/national alliance must commit to universal access to good quality and sufficient food, and information about nutrition, as a basic human right. A well informed and educated US society will become empowered to protect their own rights to healthy eating for themselves and their family.

Once these conditions are met, and as a practical application of the local/national alliance, we can start changing consumers' behaviors about food. Here are a few ideas:

Where the Curse starts to fade: Schools, Supermarkets, Restaurants and the Media

At schools, we should all continue to work to drastically improve the school feeding system,[5] integrating it with food and nutrition content in the curriculum. As a form of practical education, we need to involve trained juniors and seniors in "field work" by assigning them to supermarkets where they will educate and orient shoppers about reading labels and selecting healthy foods. Students will get rewards for their work including class credits.

Supermarkets can lower the cost of fresh produce to consumers in poor neighborhoods, by buying directly from local producers. This joint effort is a triple win-win: by featuring special sales on purchases of fresh fruits and vegetables, the supermarkets can attract a wider public, the local producers can be assured a regular outlet for their products, and consumers can access the healthy foods they need at an affordable price. This alliance between supermarkets, local producers, farmer's markets and local communities is already happening all over the country and gives hope for the relief of the food curse. It can and should be expanded systemically, especially in poor neighborhoods and so-called "food deserts."

Restaurants can encourage parents to bring their children along for promotions during weekday evenings with the offer of free healthy meals for kids. They can display educational details about the healthy foods offered to children.

Food networks can organize competitions for the healthiest snack of the year -- an Academy Award for a Healthy America. Famous chefs can be invited to create dishes that contain only natural ingredients that are nutritious and low cost. We need special programming dedicated to changing people's food habits.

These are a few simple and doable applications just to get the undoing of the food curse started. Let other people step in with their ideas. By joining hands and uniting in this fight we can be successful in undoing the food curse on a practical basis. Honoring food for what it was meant to be is our urgent task now.

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[1] Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years.

The percentage of children aged 6-11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 18% in 2010. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12-19 years who were obese increased from 5% to 18% over the same period. In 2010, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese. (Cynthia L. Ogden, Ph.D.; Margaret D. Carroll, M.S.P.H.; Brian K. Kit, M.D., M.P.H.; and Katherine M. Flegal, Prevalence of Obesity in the United States, 2009-2010 ; NCHS Data Brief ■ No. 82 ■ January 2012)

[2] In 2013, food processing companies spent over $28 million on lobbying efforts, some of which were aimed at the FDA (Alexandra Sifferlin, Time Magazine, Vol. 183, No.5, 2014)

[3] Since 1980 the index cost of fruits and vegetables has gone up by 40 percent. The index price of sodas and snack foods has gone down by 20 to 30 percent.

[4] We recognize efforts such as the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation (HWCF). However, a daily reduction of 78 calories per person is insufficient to address the severity of the obesity problem.

[5] See Janet Poppendiecks' Free for all: Fixing School Food in America (University of California Press January 4, 2010)

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