Yesterday, I wrote about a confluence of factors that helped create the substantial sustainability problems our food system now faces (see “The Rise and Fall of Nutritionism Ideology“). The post’s title suggests that the “Fall” has occured, but we know better. I was simply setting up today’s post which describes one coordinated strategy for accelerating what I hope is nutritionism’s eventual decline.
My suggestions primarily focus on the marketing side of food, since people like David Murphy at Food Democracy and others are attacking food related issues at the legislative and policy level. There are obviously overlaps where lobbying Congress and the Administration will be required, and I look forward to joining coalitions of sustainable food advocates fighting for the necessary legislative changes.
Rather than wade into such political battles, my focus is on a “death-by-a-thousand-cuts” strategy, where regions, retailers and consumers have the power to ultimately rule the day. The following list outlines the major components of that strategy. I strongly encourage any and all comments, suggestions, etc. to these recommendations, especially if you see something missing!
- Food Labeling – Reinstate the Food, Drug and Commerce Act of 1938′s “imitation” label requirement, which may be the most important label for consumers since it instantly identifies fake food. Taking the food industry head-on faces steep odds, so I am recommending a new breed of food retailers applies such labels on its shelves, moving consumers’ focus from products and packaging.
- Industry-Sponsored Research - Outlaw the use of nutritional claims from “independent research” funded by corporate interests, unless the sponsoring companies are listed as the lead in the study. As long as industry is able to regularly shift its “nutritional orthodoxy” using the sophisticated marketing of these studies, consumers will be kept off balance and less able to make informed decisions on a regular basis.
- Regional Food Systems - Accelerate the development of regional food systems that expand the production of sustainable crops and livestock, and allow for affordable local and/or regional processing of those foods, e.g., slaughterhouses. States and regions should also evaluate land use laws, land trusts and other measures to preserve (and hopefully expand) valuable crop land.
- Consumer Access - Rapidly expand consumer access to regional and other (e.g., Fair Trade) sustainable foods, including raw foods and lightly-processed products. While farmers markets and CSA programs are very popular right now, we must develop new retail formats that bring food to a greatly expanded customer base (see Why Community Supported Agriculture Isn’t Enough). One caution: This may require some regional foods be temporarily diverted from restaurants and institutions (except K-12 schools) until supply can catch up. A happy problem to solve!
- Food Experiences - Create intimate food buying experiences to build consumer confidence in cooking at home and positively reinforce such behaviors over time. For example, many farmers market shoppers state that they enjoy talking to the farmer that grew the food they are buying. It gives them confidence in the food and makes them feel good at the same time. Now imagine replacing the farmer (who I hope will grow even more real food) with chefs and cooks capable of creating similar positive experiences around cooking that same food.
- School Kitchens – Bring cooking back to every school kitchen in America and utilize as much local food as possible, including food harvested from edible schoolyards. This will help reacquaint a generation with real foods and where they come from, and will be made even more powerful if it is accompanied by a creative and fun “farm-to-table” curriculum.
- No Food Marketing Zones – Progress is being made in some school districts already, e.g., NYC, but what I am recommending calls for the removal of all branded food products and related advertising from K-12 schools (exceptions: branded foods used in school kitchens). Our children need “safe zones” where industry can’t reach them, and where they can objectively learn the pros and cons of different types of foods. District by district we can do this!
- No Fast Food Zones – Ban fast food restaurants within an appropriate distance from schools, making it inconvenient or impossible for kids to get there and back during lunch time. The more we can do to “expand” healthy food options for the children the better.
- Low-Income Programs – Provide financial incentives for low-income households to purchase sustainable food by making benefits go further when making such purchases. While this may require additional funds be made available up front, improving the diets of children and parents in these households offers significant returns on the investment, e.g., better health, better grades, etc.
- Food Pyramid – Tear down the long standing food pyramid, which simply repackages the food industry’s play book, and replace it with a message that encourages people to eat less, which is what the U.S. Senate initially recommended in 1977 before an onslaught of industry pressure got them to back off. We could also channel Pollan: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” Or we might consider Harvard’s alternative Healthy Eating Pyramid.
The common theme running throughout these recommendations is improving how consumers (households, really) interface with food at the point of purchase. Currently, the typical American consmer is at the mercy of the “nutritional industrial complex” that Pollan describes. What I am envisioning are innovative retail experiences that answer to consumers, not food giants or the government (except as required by law, of course), thus giving consumers back the control over their experience with food.
Thanks to Foodimentary (via Twitter), I have a new favorite quote from J.R.R. Tolkien that sums up this post rather nicely…
“If more of us valued food and cheer above hoarded gold, it would be a much merrier world.”
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