Sampling the Food Policy Smorgasbord

Mark Bittman and Claire Wang set the table for multi-sectoral partnerships to promote healthy eating and stem the tide of obesity.

January 24, 2017

For the first time in over two decades, life expectancy for Americans has dropped, according to a recent analysis by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with upticks in deaths from cardiovascular disease. Not unrelatedly, these negative trends arrive in the midst of the nation’s epidemic of obesity.

Mark Bittman, best-selling author and recent addition to the Mailman School, and Claire Wang, co-director of the School’s Obesity Prevention Initiative, argue that to succeed against obesity, public health must broaden its approach to food, from a narrow focus on nutrition to a diverse menu of food policies that are already transforming the kind of calories people consume. The two speak tomorrow at the Dean’s Grand Rounds on the Future of Public Health.

Take soda taxes. Since Berkeley, California, became the first city in the U.S. to enact a tax on sugary beverages in 2014, they have seen a 20-percent reduction in their consumption, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health. Mexico put a soda tax into effect the same year; one study estimates that at least 18,000 fewer people will die and close to $1 billion will be saved in healthcare costs over 10 years as a result. The idea is also catching on: last year, soda taxes passed in three new Bay Area cities (San Francisco, Oakland, and Albany), as well as Philadelphia and Cook County in Illinois.

“This is the kind of thing that represents real progress,” says Bittman. “We’re seeing a policy successful from a health perspective, and not unimportantly, it’s also popular with voters.”

Occasionally, local policies find their way to the national stage. In 2010, under mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City banned artery clogging trans fats. Five years later, the Food and Drug Administration announced that trans fats would be phased-out nationally.

The FDA has also advanced regulations around food safety and sugar labeling. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program provides nutritious meals to children when school isn’t in session—work augmented by hunger-relief organizations like Feeding America.

Industry too has stepped up to the plate. Fast food chains from McDonald’s to Dairy Queen have noticed and removed soda as the default option for their kids’ meals.

“People everywhere are making the connection that food is health and food policy is health policy,” says Wang, associate professor of Health Policy and Management. “Sometimes it’s the governments that are leading the way, and sometimes it’s private industry.”

Bittman and Wang say these cross-sectorial food policy initiatives can serve as a model for public health in the years ahead—particularly in an environment of declining federal funding. “We have to think of health and population health in a more comprehensive way,” says Wang. “In order to do that, you have to work with people outside of public health.”