Now's the Time to Fix America's Broken Food Environment

Tamar Haspel says the pandemic is an opportunity to reset our relationship with food.

a pile of junk food snacks
Who can resist when this is all around?.

@R.H via Twenty20

In a recent op-ed for the Washington Post, journalist Tamar Haspel offers a clear and concise explanation for why obesity continues to plague so many Americans: "When you peel back the objections to fat, or carbs, or processed foods, you get to the real problem: The food environment changed." After years of writing about this topic, Haspel says this may be the only factor that everyone agrees on. 

How did the food environment change? Well, just think about how our grandparents cooked and fed themselves, compared to the current approach. We've become inundated with high-calorie, mouthwatering foods everywhere we turn, from office doughnuts and freezies handed out at children's sporting practice to gargantuan entrées served at our favorite restaurants and easy-to-prepare instant meals that are high in fat and sodium. For the most part, little effort is now required to prepare or access food, and it's nearly impossible to resist treats when we're hardwired to crave them. (This is also the premise of an excellent book I read recently called The Dorito Effect by Mark Schatzker.)

Control over this situation comes from two places – either in the form of government agencies and food companies promising to do better at regulating or reformulating their products (Haspel calls these "top-down" changes to the food environment), or from people making different food-related decisions on the ground ("bottom-up" changes). While both can be effective, Haspel wants to see more of an emphasis on the bottom-up approach, since top-down changes take too long. (The long-awaited U.S. Dietary Guidelines, set to be released at the end of 2020, are an example of this glacial and laborious process.) Right now, however, we cannot afford to waste more time.

Fortunately, the tail end of the coronavirus pandemic is an ideal time to reset the way we feed ourselves, our families, and our communities. We're just exiting a unique few months in which most of us had to cook a lot more than usual, stopped eating out at restaurants, avoided the gratuitous treats available everywhere. No time has ever been better for deciding what the new normal can be. Haspel writes,

"Taking something back usually means taking it back from something pretty bad. When the women’s movement started 'take back the night,' it was from rapists and abusers. But 'take back the food environment' is from things we do want, which was what got us into this mess. Take it back from Doritos, from ramen, from hot dogs, from doughnuts."

Haspel gives a list of suggestions for making these revolutionary bottom-up changes, and they start with individuals at home. Here, I'm sharing some of her points, as well as my own for setting oneself up for success. "Become a better cook," she says, and I agree wholeheartedly with this advice. Try to keep up the cooking habits that you've (hopefully) developed this past winter/spring. You could try the Cook90 challenge to stay on track, once life becomes more normal. Dedicate weekends to menu planning, grocery shopping, and food prep.

One of the most helpful things I've done is sign up for an annual 20-week CSA (community supported agriculture) share. My initial motive was to support a local organic farmer, but it ended up boosting my family's health because we suddenly have an abundance of fresh vegetables that needs to be eaten each week before the next load arrived. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

I've learned from experience that feeding myself and my family before venturing out into the world is key to avoiding the junk food trap. Never go out hungry! If our bellies are full of healthy food, we're less likely to make emergency snack stops or impulsive food purchases that undermine health. Similarly, it's crucial to travel with healthy, satisfying snacks to stave off hunger. I've usually got dried fruit and nuts on hand, and have recently discovered the absurdly tasty vegan Noble Jerky.

When shopping, practice saying no to certain foods and products without putting them in your cart. Just walk on by. While it takes immense self-control in the moment, it still requires less than if those same items are on your shelf at home and you're trying to resist the urge to eat them. Not having prepackaged snacks is the absolute easiest way to control children's diets because, instead of saying, "No, you can't have that," you simply say, "We don't have that," and the conversation is over.

Once changes are implemented at home, it becomes easier to influence others to make similar changes. Talk to your coworkers and boss about the foods you'd like to see (or not see) at work, to your children's sports team coach or caregiver about snack time, to whatever groups or committees you're on about break-time snacks. As Haspel says, "Schools, markets, restaurants, city councils, YMCAs: All work together to tackle obesity by changing the food environment and the social mores around eating and exercise. And that seems to work."

Not everyone wants or needs to lose weight, but the point is that, for those who do, it's exceedingly difficult to resist the innumerable temptations of a junk food-saturated culture. Considering that 60 percent of Americans have been diagnosed with diet-related chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes, and dementia, in addition to obesity, it would be a shame to not to use the pandemic as an opportunity to reset and rebuild the food environment to be conducive to good food choices. And home is always the logical place to start.