According to an article I read yesterday, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is unequivocally opposed to sin taxes on soda and junk food. Calling them regressive (they are more likely to burden lower income individuals, because they are more likely to buy these foods), she has also noted that it can be difficult to draw the line between what makes a good and bad food. “Orange juice has just as much sugar as soda, in some cases,” she noted recently, “but it’s usually exempted [from such taxes].” (Putting aside the obvious difference in the type of sugar (added vs. natural) between these two beverages, I do agree that labeling foods as categorically “good” or “bad” is troublesome.)
Instead, what she calls for is making fruits & vegetables more affordable and empowering families to make better choices through education.
Sounds good right? I mean, who can say no to more education. I am ALL FOR education.
But let me ask you something. Do you know that you should be eating fruits & vegetables? Does your mother? Your grandmother? Ask your cab driver and barber and the lawn maintenance crew at your office park “Are fruits & vegetables good for you or bad for you and should you be eating more or less of them?” and I would bet (good money that I don’t have) that 99% of the people you ask will answer those two questions correctly.
And therein lies the rub with Sen. Gellibrand’s position, in my opinion. While it sounds great and it’s hard to oppose – “Um, no thanks. I don’t want to give people MORE education – I’m not sure that more education is going to make that much difference. We know what we ought to do, we just have trouble actually doing it.
When you ask people why they buy cheap, fast, and convenient meals they tell you that it’s because they are exactly that: cheap, fast, and convenient. Most people are operating on limited resources: fixed (and too small) incomes, significant time constraints, and restricted available bandwidth for making and managing decisions. So efforts to increase fruit & vegetable consumption, or to alter any other food-related behavior, that don’t also consider and try to address these very real constraints are not likely to have much impact at all.
Consider also that if you haven’t been taught food prep and cooking skills and haven’t had multiple, repeated exposures to these foods, then the thought of making asparagus and gruyere frittatas or kale salad with cherries, pecans, and goat cheese sounds equally absurd and awful. No matter how many times you tell me that’s what I should do, chances are pretty good I won’t.
So yes, let’s educate. Let’s never stop educating. But let’s also try a couple of other tactics, shall we, that might also give people a fighting chance at making some of these changes that we – and when I say we I mean nutrition and public health experts, doctors, educators, anyone in the public sphere who has ever commented on a nutrition- or health-related story, and anyone with a pulse – changes that we keep recommending.
Let’s bring home economics back to our curriculums so kids know how to hold a knife, make a souffle, and, oh, I don’t know…boil water. Let’s reduce the number of full-time hours required in a work week so that spending time with families or having hobbies outside of the office is equally valued to “putting in a hard days’ work”. Let’s pay everyone a living wage so they can afford fruits & vegetables (and rent and gas and heat). Let’s make the food and food experience at daycares and schools the pinnacle of healthy behaviors so kids have multiple opportunities for exposure to a large variety of foods. Let’s create national policy that supports the foods we are pushing, instead of the ones that we ask everyone to avoid. Let’s support small, local, working farms and farmers.
Then, let’s make a pamphlet telling everyone about it.