Food Swamps, Unhealthy Food Access and Moving Beyond Personal Responsibility

As we have done successfully with tobacco, we need to move beyond individualistic public health nutrition goals and aim to reshape our food environment as a collective whole.
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The concepts of healthy food access and eliminating food deserts are some of the most accepted and promoted nutrition issues in recent years. Public health advocates, food industry representatives and even the White House, have all shown support for the initiative. You would be hard pressed to find someone against adding more social justice to our food environment and making sure that everyone has access to nutrient dense foods; however, this is just one side of a complicated issue.

In Parke Wilde's all encompassing textbook, Food Policy in the United States: An Introduction, he highlighted how only 2.2 percent of U.S. households live more than one mile from a grocery store, and do not own a car. Additionally, Wilde cites a survey in which just 31 percent of low-income, food-stamp recipients say they shop for food at a store within one mile of home. Please don't misunderstand, the pursuit of healthy food access is still a worthwhile endeavor, but it is time to properly address the nutritional "elephant in the room."

There is a basic premise that if you add healthy food into an environment, this will displace unhealthy food and an improved health outlook will follow. Accordingly, I believe we also need to tackle the challenging subject of limiting our access to unhealthy food. Food swamps have been described as areas with a heavy concentration of fast food restaurants and convenience stores offering nutrient poor food. Although studies have shown mixed results at times, research is now showing that access to unhealthy food has implications on childhood obesity, especially impacting black and Hispanic students at low-income and urban schools.

Unhealthy food access is ubiquitous in our environment, whether we are at grocery store or even a place of wellness. Although not panaceas for the epidemic, initiatives such as soda size limitation and food taxes could help improve our heath outlook; however, we are not ready as a population to accept these ideas. Pew Research Center demonstrated that only 35 percent of Americans would support taxes on unhealthy food and 31 percent support limiting soft drink sizes at restaurants.

As a nation based on personal freedom, which I whole-heartedly support, we sometimes take a long time to allow someone to help with our problems, especially the government. January 11th, 2014 marked the 50th anniversary of the first Surgeon General's Report on Smoking and Health, which called for government intervention to help promote smoking cessation. Over the next 50 years, taxes were increased, restrictions on where you can smoke are now in place, and a shift in public perception on smoking occurred. Around 42 percent of adults smoked before the 1964 report, a figure which is now near 18 percent. We arrived at this point as a society by moving beyond the claim of personal responsibility with smoking to viewing it as an issue of our environment. Currently, almost 70 percent of Americans are either overweight or obese. Are 70 percent of us dealing with issues of personal responsibility? Not to mention that this epidemic is hurting our collective pocket books, with the U.S. government footing some of the bill. As Kelly D. Brownell of the Yale Rudd Center for Obesity and Food Policy puts it, we need "optimal defaults" in regards to our food environment, which makes the unhealthy choice harder to make than the healthy one.

As someone who has changed his life through personal responsibility, I am by no means removing personal accountability from the equation, and still strongly emphasize its importance as part of the solution. However, I believe we as a nation are at the tipping point with the obesity epidemic. As we have done successfully with tobacco, we need to move beyond individualistic public health nutrition goals and aim to reshape our food environment as a collective whole.