4 Ways Good Food Can Change the World
Can you imagine if there was one invention that could help people live healthier lives, reduce healthcare costs, boost the economy, increase education outcomes, and improve the environment? Now, imagine that it’s not an invention at all, but something that has been around for, well, ever, and something you not only encounter every day but also need to live. That’s right, I’m talking about food.
Humans—and Americans in particular—have a complicated relationship with food, as exemplified by fad diets, ever-changing (and often conflicting) dietary recommendations, the widespread presence of food deserts, and of course the obesity epidemic. But if approached and consumed in thoughtful, healthy, and sustainable ways, food can be a catalyst for positive social change. Here’s how.
It’s no secret that good food is essential to health. Yet, our nation is in the midst of an enormous health crisis caused specifically by failure to prioritize nutrition. Four of the leading causes of death in the U.S. are diet-related, and an unhealthy diet contributes to approximately 678,000 deaths each year.
The good news is that where food is the problem, it’s also the solution. Approaches to food that emphasize nutrition education and improving access to healthy food can dramatically increase public health. A Tufts University study, for example, found that a reduction in the price of nutritious foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains coupled with a tax on unhealthy foods like red meats and sugary drinks could prevent roughly 23,000 deaths each year. Food is one of the most powerful health promotion tools, so imagine how many lives we could save by focusing on preventing diseases through healthy diets rather than treating diseases caused by poor diets.
It may be difficult to consider how an individual’s food choices can impact the economy, but simply looking at how much our nation could be saving if we ate healthier starts to bring this concept into perspective. In 2016, the U.S. spent a staggering $480.7 billion treating chronic diseases caused by obesity and being overweight. But treatment isn’t all we pay for when it comes to diet-related diseases. After accounting for indirect costs, like lost worker productivity, the total cost jumps to $1.72 trillion. That’s approximately one-tenth of the 2016 U.S. gross domestic product.
The need for a “health is wealth” approach to food policy and nutrition promotion has never been clearer. Targeted initiatives that promote healthier eating, like nutrition education in schools and food prescription programs, invest not only in population health but also in economic health. In other words, helping people eat healthier keeps dollars out of healthcare and saves them for other causes—education, urban renewal, you name it.
Good food in schools should be a no-brainer. If children are the future, then we need to ensure they have the proper tools to succeed in school, starting with food. And not just any food, but food that is full of the nutrients our bodies and minds need to function properly. Since better nutrition makes students healthier, they’re more likely to show up to class ready to learn and have fewer absences. Additionally, studies have shown that a high-quality diet is associated with better performance on exams.
Despite these facts, the standard for school meals remains low. Pizza, cookies, and French fries take center stage while fruits, vegetables, and whole grains take the back seat (if present at all). Foods with high levels of saturated fats, however, have been found to impair learning and memory, and sugar plays a role in hindering student performance, too. School food should help, not hurt, students’ academic performance. Prioritizing school nutrition and helping families access healthy food is critical to boosting education outcomes, which, of course, has positive implications for the economy as well.
Our food and the global environment are inextricably linked (food does come from nature after all…). There currently exists a vicious cycle in which our food system is wreaking havoc on the environment and environmental degradation is putting our food system in danger. Between runoff from pesticides and herbicides, air pollution from transporting food across the country (and around the world), immense resource losses from wasted food, and the release of methane gas into the atmosphere from cattle waste, our current methods of food production are threatening the environment at unprecedented levels.
Sustainable food production and consumption, however, has the power to mitigate the effects of climate change and ensure there are enough resources to continue feeding the growing population. So how can our food choices help protect the environment? Some options are to focus on eating foods that are lower on the food chain and less processed, like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains; reduce or compost your food waste at home; and buy local food, which has a much smaller carbon footprint, whenever possible. On the national scale, policies that promote organic and regenerative agriculture methods rather than commercial farming and monoculture crops, as well as innovations that repurpose food waste and unwanted produce, have tremendous potential for reducing air pollution and sustaining resources for future generations.
It’s time to start viewing food as the powerful tool for social change that it is. After all, food is medicine, food is community, and food is culture. Food touches so many aspects of our lives, so it is critical to view diet from a holistic perspective as opposed to viewing it through only one lens, such as health. While it may not be a cure-all, food still has the power to transform not only individual lives, but also the prosperity of our entire nation and the world. At Hager Sharp, we’re committed to improving health, advancing education, transforming our communities, and making meaningful change in the world. Therefore, we’re investing in good food and nutrition in 2019 and beyond. Are you with us?
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