Healthy Food, Like Clean Water, Should Be a Staple

Americans have long considered clean drinking water a staple, not a luxury, and we need to start thinking of healthy food that way, too. Healthy food is every bit as crucial for life and wellbeing. It should be readily available and easily accessible to all; unfortunately, in too many situations, that's not the case.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 23.5 million Americans live in food deserts - without ready access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food. More than half of them (13.5 million) come from low-income families.

Healthy food is primarily provided through private enterprise, not public systems. But public policies - at the federal, state, or local levels - should ensure its availability and accessibility, and our culture and business practices should reinforce that. The following six priorities should serve as a starting point for public discussion of this new approach:

Access to healthy food should be universal. Access comes in two primary forms: availability and affordability. Where can you buy it and at what price? Availability involves both the accessibility of nutritious foods and the restriction (in schools, for instance) of unhealthy products. Affordability involves both the reasonable pricing of healthy foods and the creation of disincentives for unhealthy ones. Public policy should address availability and affordability in ways that ensure greater access to healthier food and pricing that makes it possible.

The federal government regulated aviation to ensure that all parts of the country were effectively served. Banks were forced to stop redlining certain communities. Why is food of less concern? Why are food deserts allowed to persist? Balanced nutrition should not be out of reach - geographically or financially.

Community disparities should be addressed. People with low incomes typically live in neighborhoods where healthy eating is harder to do. A study by the Food Trust found that "accessing healthy food is a challenge for many Americans--particularly those living in low-income neighborhoods, communities of color, and rural areas." Access to good nutrition--and the cost of that food--should not vary significantly from one community to another.

Marketing of sugary drinks and junk food to children should be considered irresponsible business conduct. Too much marketing of sugary drinks and junk food is focused on young audiences and designed to give the impression that they are a core component of a youthful life. "Beverage companies spent $866 million to advertise unhealthy drinks in 2013, and children and teens remained key target audiences for that advertising," according to a new report by the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.

Business should be recognized as part of the solution. Here the work of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation is an important step in the right direction. The CEO-led organization brings together more than 275 companies and trade associations - including retailers, food and beverage manufacturers, and restaurants--to promote ways to help people achieve a healthy weight through energy balance--calories in and calories out.

We should also applaud companies that improve their own practices. Disney, for instance, announced that by this year, all food and beverages advertised on its child-oriented television channels and programs must meet the company's nutrition standards. Wendy's recently became the latest fast food chain to remove sodas from kids' meal menus.

Sweets should be a treat, not a staple. Sugary drinks and highly sweetened foods should stop being a core component of our diet. My colleague, Dr. Y. Claire Wang, Co-Director of the Obesity Prevention Initiative at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, studies consumption of sugary beverages, which is finally beginning to decrease among vulnerable groups. Dr. Wang points out that portion size is an important factor in that regard, and while New York City's effort to limit the size of individual servings ultimately failed, there should be no disagreement that encouraging consumption of vast quantities of soda in a single setting is not responsible marketing.

Water should be encouraged as an essential ingredient of good health. The United States is fortunate to have one of the safest, public, drinking water supplies in the world, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Yet water is still not as available as it should be. Last year the CDC went so far as to create a public toolkit for "Increasing Access to Drinking Water in Schools." Americans should take greater advantage of available drinking water and insist that it be more available in public parks, recreation settings, workplaces, and schools.

Changing expectations about access to nutritious food is crucial to the health of Americans. Like safe drinking water, it is vital to combating the growing epidemics of diabetes and obesity that threaten our health and economic wellbeing.