It’s safe to say that obesity is one of our greatest public health concerns in the world. The treatment for the related conditions and diseases costs billions, and growing waistlines affect social interactions. As a response, numerous governments have tried various strategies to try to encourage people to take on healthy habits. In the United States, Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg tried to limit sizes of sugary drinks, only to receive just as much pushback as he probably imagined.
In South Africa, innovators are trying a different tack. The HealthyFood Program has been a three-year long campaign put in place by the country’s largest healthcare insurer. At hundreds of Pick n Pay supermarkets, program beneficiaries were given a 10 to 25 percent rebate on produce and other healthy items. When compared to people who were not beneficiaries of the program, people bought more healthy food and less unhealthy food, reports the Pacific Standard. Surprise, surprise.
Compare that strategy to the ones touted by editorialist Charles Lane in The Washington Post (and Newser, who covers this topic every single time an op-ed mentions it). Lane gleefully suggests that lawmakers should limit the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps, to healthful foods, as if he was the first person to ever devise a plan like this. Then he takes the weakest counterarguments – that it’s not fair to restrict low-income people’s eating habits, that it stigmatizes the poor – as if he’s completely checkmated the other side. His argument also ignores the hypocrisy of making low-income people stick to a diet that has 65 percent less fat than that of the average American.
What the HealthyFood Program understands, that editorialists like Charles Lane and Mark Bittman, don’t, is that it’s not enough to restrict people’s food choices. Aside from the fact that adults tend to respond better to incentives than to punishments and condescension, restricting food choices does not eliminate the reasons that people pick unhealthy foods. Sure, it’s healthier to serve carrots instead of chips. But it takes more time to cook carrots, the corner store may not have the freshest produce and it’s often more expensive to buy good fruits and vegetables. Sure, it may not seem like a lot at first. Then, when you account for the fact that produce goes bad relatively quickly, while an unopened bag of Cheez-Its can last forever, those wasted dollars of uneaten food can add up.
Aside from the fact, the HealthyFood Program is open to anyone. Op-eds like this mask a disdain for low-income people with snide unsustainable solutions. Obesity affects everyone, and we should all be doing our part to have healthier lifestyles; even that person you know who’s always drinking some green cocktail that contains spinach probably sits too much. Let’s stop pretending that obesity is only a problem that needs to be contained for low-income people; maybe then we’ll actually devise a solution that works for us all.