A Recipe for a Healthier America

This week, New York City Mayor Bloomberg announced that, thanks to funding from the federal economic stimulus package, New Yorkers enrolled in the federal Food Stamp Program will receive a 13 percent increase in their monthly food stamp grants.

A larger food stamp grant will give poor families more access to food, but food stamps themselves will not and cannot solve the crisis in the nation's diet that affects everyone's health, and particularly the health of poorer Americans.

For the past 50 years, the country has followed a nutrient-based approach that emphasizes reaching numerical targets for proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals, rather than consuming balanced meals of whole foods. The key beneficiary has been the food industry, which has flooded store shelves with energy bars, cereals and other seductive snacks that offer little more than "healthy labeling." Highly processed, fatty and sugary foods have become all too easily accessible, particularly in poor neighborhoods and communities of color, while fresh produce is harder to find -- indeed, some 3 million New Yorkers live in "food deserts" where markets that sell fresh fruits and vegetables are virtually non-existent. At the same time, one in six restaurants in East and Central Harlem serves fast food, compared to one in 25 on the Upper East Side. And while federal and state governments have laudably sought to increase access to food stamps and other assistance programs, the markets food stamps are used in too often do not offer quality food.

To see the results of this dysfunctional culture around food, we need look no further than our own waistlines. In New York City, for example, rates of obesity and diabetes rates rose by 17 percent between 2002 and 2004, a period during which New Yorkers gained more than 10 million collective pounds. More than half of the city's adults and 43 percent of its school children are overweight or obese, conditions that the U.S. Surgeon General has designated among the nation's leading health priorities.

How can we get back to eating good food? American cities need to begin identifying, developing and supplying themselves from local "food sheds" -- their surrounding farms and pasturelands. Studies have shown that when folks living without reasonable access to fresh produce are provided such access -- through food stamps and WIC coupons that can be used in farmers markets, or through membership in a community supported agriculture program that provides them with a steady supply of farm fresh produce, or through community gardens where they can eat what they grow themselves -- their intake of fresh fruits and vegetables increases.

Of course, we know that that increased fruit and vegetable consumption is associated with better health. But when produce is locally grown, there are other benefits as well. Local produce begins to be sold in local markets, which is good for the local economy and cuts down on distribution costs. Across the country, one third of America's two million farms are located in metropolitan regions. The country has seen a vast expansion in the number of farmers' markets and community-supported agriculture initiatives during the past 20 years. If farmers had reliable local markets that would allow them to calibrate their production to local needs, they would no longer have to sell at rock bottom prices into markets that may ship their produce around the world. One example of such imbalances: while New York State grows many times more apples than it consumes, the vast majority of the apples New Yorkers consume are grown out of state or overseas.

But farmers cannot do it alone. It is time for state and local governments to work together to create sustainable food systems. Their work must begin with an analysis of where, food is, or could be, produced locally, and how those sources might be protected and expanded. Cities should create food enterprise zones in food desert zones and dedicate public financing or micro loans to community partnerships around local food. School cafeterias should be re-equipped to cook real food. And regional and local farmers should be given better access to -- and facilities in -- urban markets. The result could be not only smaller waistlines and longer lives, but also more jobs and a resurgence in local farming itself -- which would mean a greener, healthier world for all of us.

The alternatives are ones that ultimately none of us will be able to stomach.

Stringer and Gussow will be featured speakers this Saturday, April 4th, at Restoring Balance: New Visions for Food and Activity, at Teachers College at Columbia University.

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