- Publication and promotion of Myplate.gov, which establishes nutrition guidelines that have an impact on many aspects of our lives, including what foods children are served in schools through the National School Lunch Program.
- Congress authorizes farm subsidies through the reauthorization of the Farm Bill every five years. These subsidies lower the cost of certain crops, such as corn, and the food products they make, such as high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Cheap HFCS is the reason it is so inexpensive to “supersize” your soda at a fast food restaurant. Compared to corn, fruits and vegetables are poorly subsidized.
- Regulating genetically modified foods and defining what such terms as “organic,” “light” and “low fat” mean on a food label.
- The government agencies involved in food, nutrition and public policy include
To learn more, read Kelly Brownell’s article “Should Government Tell You What to Eat?”.
Q: Isn’t it good to have so many federal government agencies paying attention to the food and obesity issues?
A: Unfortunately, the involvement of so many agencies means that responsibility for the issues is diluted and the groups often work at cross-purposes. Sometimes there are clear conflicts of interest within an agency itself. For example, the USDA establishes national nutrition policy, but its more important aim is to help the agriculture industry be profitable by maximizing food sales.
Q: Are there ways a regular citizen can get involved in making policy changes to affect obesity?
A: Yes! In fact, individuals and organizations in the general public can have a significant impact on public policy. Here are some ways:
- Express your opinions to candidates and your local, state, and federal elected officials. Write, call, and visit to let them know your concern about the obesity epidemic or about an obesity policy you think is important. Be sure to vote in all elections.
- Write letters to the editor of your local newspaper to alert people about a pubic policy (both good and bad) that is coming up for a vote in your local school board or town council. Write to larger papers as well about statewide and federal initiatives.
- Join organizations that are working on food obesity policy. There’s a short list in our Research Tools section or look in your local area for branches of national organizations or for local organizations. Many organizations are recruiting local advocates to spread the word about public policies that are needed, or are about to be voted on. You can be powerful as an individual, but even more so when working with a group.
Q: Does public policy work?
A: Good public policy works, but only when well-written, comprehensive, and strictly enforced. For example, a school wellness policy that states “schools will sell only healthy foods” is much weaker and harder to enforce than one that reads “in vending machines, school stores, cafeterias, and fundraisers, schools will sell only foods that have less than X% of fat, X% of saturated fat, X grams of sugar per serving, and X number of calories per serving. The implementation of these standards will be monitored by a representative of the principal, and the results will be reported on a twice-yearly basis to the School Wellness Committee.”
Q: How do you figure out who has the power to change policies?
A: This will vary depending on whether you’re trying to change local, state, or federal policy. For example, if you want to get a state law passed to ban the sale of junk food and soda in schools, a large coalition of groups and community members can have the power to convince state legislators to vote for such a ban. It is also important to find out which State Senators or Representatives have the power to change policies in the legislature. The most powerful figures in legislatures are the Senate President, the House Speaker, and the chairs of committees. For our example, it would be important to learn who chairs the education, the public health, and the ways and means committees.
When you’re trying to change public policy, it’s also important to know who your opposition is, how powerful they are, and how they interact with policy makers. For example, if you were trying to enforce a menu-labeling law in your city, you should be aware of the lobbying power of the local restaurant association, and other trade organizations that represent the fast food industry. See the list above for a sampling of those associations.
Q: How is policy made on a local, state, and national level?
A. Click here for a good synopsis.