It’s no longer the case that malnourishment is the only food related health crisis in our nation – over consumption and unhealthy nutrition choices aid and abet the downward spiral of health across the United States. Food and nutrition cannot continue to be looked at as a black and white case of sustenance versus starvation, because the implications of our everyday food choices are quickly and significantly increasing. Obesity, diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease are some of the leading killers of Americans today, and is undoubtedly linked to the food we eat everyday. Mark Bittman addressed this very issue in an article in this week’s New York Times Sunday Review, discussing how junk food is really not any cheaper than healthier and home-cooked food. In addition to detailing the common misconceptions about why people choose junk food over healthier options (price, calories, time, access, skill etc.) he discusses the dire need for a nation-wide paradigm shift in order to re-prioritize our everyday food choices. Children and adults alike need to be educated about the fact that unhealthy food choices carry lifelong consequences, and need to understand the larger implications of opting for a Big Mac, fries and a sugar-sweetened beverage over a healthier – and when possible, fresh – home cooked meal. The national health priority of food can no longer be viewed as a matter of pure access; instead, it must incorporate the multitude of contributing factors that go into everyday food choices and eating behaviors. As Bittman explains, “taking the long route to putting food on the table may not be easy, but for almost all Americans it remains a choice, and if you can drive to McDonald’s you can drive to Safeway.” We need to change the perception among Americans that healthy food is too expensive, or that healthy food tastes bad, or that healthy food simply requires too much effort to put on the table after a long day at work . As Bittman breaks down in his article, dinner for a family of four at McDonalds would cost around 28 dollars, while a healthier meal can be served at home for no more than 9 dollars. What is needed, is nationwide nutrition education to understand the grim health implications that are dictated by our everyday food choices.
Bittman’s article reflects a larger growing dialogue concerned not just with food availability, but with access to healthy, nutritious and affordable foods. While hunger is, and will always be a matter of priority, the paradigm shift must incorporate not just the quantity of food, but the quality well. Bringing messages like Bittman’s into public discourse is undoubtedly a difficult task, but the beginning steps are already being taken. Through recent initiatives like Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, and widespread proliferation of farmers’ markets and CSAs, the issue of nutritious food access has entered cultural and political forums. In order to truly address food insecurity, we must reprioritize not just whether there is food on the table, but what kind of food it really is.