We'll all have our own key issues in mind when we go to the polls a week from today. From the New York Times
But for those of us interested in promoting healthful eating -- in our own homes and in homes, schools and restaurants across the nation -- that list might include the way our next president, members of Congress and state and local officials intend to address food policy over the next few years.
The politics of food and farming have been examined in recent weeks in prominent publications by leading writers in the field. The Oct. 9 New York Times Magazine
featured a thought-provoking open letter to the next president by Michael Pollan, author of "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto." Pollan posits that food has quickly and unexpectedly become a central issue to be grappled with. Food policy is, he argues, a key component of our nation's energy future -- as fossil fuel use and food production have in recent decades become tightly intertwined -- and our approach to public health and health-care policy. The government's promotion of cheap, high-calorie foods through its farm subsidy program has, in Pollan's view and others', contributed mightily to Americans' health woes, feeding everything from obesity and diabetes to cancer and heart disease.
And in a commentary
in the Oct. 15 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, David Ludwig, director of the obesity program at Children's Hospital Boston and author of "Ending the Food Fight: Guide Your Child to a Healthy Weight in a Fast Food/Fake Food World," and Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and author of "What to Eat," write about the food industry's role in combating obesity. They say that while many food companies, such as McDonald's, Kraft, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, talk a good talk when it comes to promoting healthful eating and physical activity, they don't always walk the walk.
As the authors rightly point out, food companies exist to make profits, which means their motivation sometimes runs counter to the goals of public health physicians. "Not to demonize the food industry," Ludwig told me in a phone interview, "but their role is to feed us," not to fight obesity. "When we make marketing healthful foods profitable, the food industry will be very quick to jump in."
The article's observations amplify the findings of a report
issued in July by the Federal Trade Commission that examined the food and beverage industries' marketing to children and teens. The FTC found that, although those industries had made important strides toward limiting kids' exposure to marketing for unhealthful foods, 44 major marketers spent $1.6 billion in 2006 promoting foods and drinks, many of dubious nutritional value, through kid-oriented TV shows, movies and video games, as well as through less-traditional means such as in-store advertising and the Internet. The report, "Marketing Food to Children and Adolescents," calls for all food companies "to adopt and adhere to meaningful, nutrition-based standards for marketing their products to children under 12" and quotes FTC member Jon Leibowitz as saying: "Most large food marketers are beginning to take their self-regulatory obligations seriously, and for that they deserve recognition. Yet some companies still need to step up to the plate and others need to strengthen their voluntary measures, not only because it is in the public interest, but also because it is in their self-interest."
The JAMA article lists several instances in which the food industry is at odds with, and often works to undermine, the forces working toward a more healthful American menu. Ludwig and Nestle paint an unsavory portrait, from lobbying efforts and financial support of scientific research that ends up -- surprise! -- favoring the food industry's point of view. And then there's the industry's sponsorship of sporting events in which kids probably expend fewer calories than they consume afterward with a single soft drink. And there's food companies' involvement with major health-related professional associations, such Coca-Cola's donations to and partnership with the American Dietetic Association, which gives them the aura of righteousness and access to opinion-makers in the nutrition world.
Ultimately, Ludwig and Nestle outline what they call "an appropriate division of responsibilities" in sorting all this out, doling out assignments to the government (greater regulation and standard-setting, banning food marketing aimed at kids, requiring fast-food companies to warn consumers about the dangers of partially hydrogenated fats and excess sugar, and more), academia ("rigorous scientific investigation of nutrition and health"), public health organizations, the public and the food industry itself, which is asked to adopt "ethical marketing standards."
And we consumers can best help, they say, "with the fork, by making informed food purchases, and with the ballot, by electing politicians committed to enlightened government action in the area of nutrition and health."
It's tricky to tease out the presidential candidates' stances on farm policy and regulating the food industry; neither topic, as Pollan points out, has figured large in the campaign. Perhaps the candidates' records and attitudes regarding regulation in general may offer a clue. Since much of what needs to be done can be accomplished via federal regulation, maybe the candidate who has most consistently favored such regulation is our man. On the other hand, maybe the party whose ticket includes a bona fide hunter is more closely attuned to the notion of eating local food.
But what if food-industry reform isn't the decisive issue for you in this election?
It's certainly understandable for any of us to choose a candidate according to how we believe he'll handle matters such as the economy, foreign affairs, taxes or gas prices.
If that's your thinking, you can cast your vote for more healthful food every single time you shop or eat. Visit a farmers market, buy locally made cheese, eat a homemade meal at the family table instead of grabbing fast food to gobble in the car, seek out whole foods instead of processed, packaged items. If we all make such choices, our collective voices will be heard loud and clear -- well beyond Election Day.