The second article in our series commissioned by NCDFREE, this week, young change-maker Shauna Downs writes about reconnecting with food as an essential step in overcoming the local and global burden of NCDs. Shauna is a PhD candidate at the Menzies Centre for Health Policy in the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney.
Our food environment largely shapes what we eat based on what food is available, affordable and acceptable. My most jarring experience relating to just how important our food environment is in terms of health and NCDs is when I did my Masters research in a remote Aboriginal community in northern Canada. I was shocked to see that the few vegetables in the community’s only store were both rotting and exorbitantly priced. Alongside these rotting vegetables were aisles of cheap ultra processed foods. If that wasn’t bad enough, they even trucked in buckets of fried chicken from Montreal (which was 7hrs by road). Not only was the food environment suffering in this community but so was the health of its population. In contrast to the superior health of Aboriginal peoples in the past, this community was now experiencing high rates of overweight and obesity, diabetes rates were skyrocketing and community members were dying far too young.
How did this happen? One thing for sure is that our food environments have changed – and diets have changed along with it. We have lost the connection with food and where it comes from. As the world has become more globalised, so too has our food system. It has led to the infiltration ultra-processed food throughout our food supply. One of the main problems with this infiltration is that the relentless pursuit of sales and profit growth by transnational food companies has led to our food environments being saturated with unhealthy food.
So what can we do about it?
VOTE WITH OUR FORKS!
The food industry makes products that they think we want but by demanding healthier products, we have the power to influence what arrives on our grocery store shelves. We can refuse to buy products that have more than five ingredients or that more closely resemble chemicals than food.
ADVOCATE FOR REGULATION.
We need to advocate for regulation that makes it easier for everyone to make healthier food choices. We need to embrace the nanny state! We can support regulation that limits the quantity of salt in foods and marketing of unhealthy foods to children and encourage governments to tax soft drinks and provide subsidies for fruits and vegetables for low-income families.
Where I think we can really make a difference NOW is in the local food supply chains. Although it’s important to think global in terms of the food system, we need to act locally. Whether it’s by supporting local farmers markets or simply buying the locally produced fruits and vegetables in the supermarkets – we need to start buying products produced domestically. As demand for locally produced food increases more and more, it will create a larger and more stable market for local producers and will in time, bring down prices (making it easier for lower income groups to buy and eat locally). Regulation can help speed this process along. Countries, states or cities could take a similar approach to that taken by Brazil and Japan and ensure that schools spend 30% of their food budgets on food procured from local farmers. This has three obvious benefits. One, it increases access of nutritious foods to children; two, it creates a market for farmers which provides them with stability in terms of distribution; and three, it reduces food miles having a positive environmental impact.
BOLD LEADERSHIP BY LOCAL GOVERNMENT.
New York City has taken the lead in many aspects of improving the quality of the food supply. They have banned trans fat, began the sodium reduction initiative in the US, attempted to ban the sale of large sodas and have tried to increase access to fresh produce. They provided vendor licenses for 1000 green carts that can only sell fresh fruits and vegetables in the city’s boroughs. More recently, NYC doctors began providing prescriptions for fresh fruit and vegetables to low income families at high risk of NCDs. The program turns local farmers markets into pharmacies! Every local government should look to Mayor Bloomberg for inspiration on how to tackle public health in a bold and innovative way.
RECONNECT WITH THE FOOD SYSTEM.
Reconnecting with the food system will not be easy on the global level. It’s a complex problem and will require multifaceted solutions involving many sectors but we can’t use this as an excuse for inaction. Ensuring that healthy foods are available, affordable and acceptable is possible but it will require passion, persistence and vision from government. We need to demand healthier products and greater transparency about what’s in the food we consume. We can buy and eat local and we can take time out of our busy schedules to eat with friends and families and cook meals from ingredients rather than boxes and jars. We can commit to closing inequalities in fresh food access, demand bold leadership on regulation and empower kids through education to grow up with the knowledge of good food and how to prepare it. I think it’s clear that we need to take action – so take out your forks and vote!
This article was commissioned by NCDFREE, in collaboration with Remedy Healthcare and Local Peoples.
Shauna Downs is a PhD candidate at the Menzies Centre for Health Policy in the School of Public Health at the University of Sydney. Her PhD project examines trans fat policy in India using a food systems approach. Her main interest is in the relationship among the nutrition transition, chronic disease and the use of multisectoral policies to improve the quality of the food supply. In addition to her PhD work, Shauna is a Research Assistant in the Food Policy Division of The George Institute for Global Health. Prior to beginning her PhD, Shauna worked at the University of Alberta (Edmonton, Canada) where she was a Research Coordinator in Community Nutrition. Her research focused on adolescent and child obesity prevention, primarily in schools.