Many of the nation’s bedrock hunger-prevention programs–including SNAP and school lunches–are the products of a 1969 White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health hosted by the Nixon Administration. In many ways, the event was an incredible success. The social assistance programs it created continue to provide critical assistance to millions of Americans.
Today, we spend over $180 billion providing food to families in need through these programs. Despite spending all this money that created a much-needed safety net, widespread poor nutrition–and the health risks associated with it–continue. What went wrong?
In the 53 years since the last gathering, all this good work was overwhelmed by breakneck innovation in salt, fat, and sugar. Do we really need 65 flavors of Oreos? At the same time, there was a market failure: good food today fails to reach one in six Americans because it’s too expensive or too far away.
Today, the Biden White House is convening the first follow-up Conference to the 1969 event. For this gathering to be a success, it must bring radical change to our broken food culture. People in underserved communities need more access to good food–and all of us need healthy choices to be clearer, easier, and affordable.
Government certainly has a role to play in addressing this critical problem. For example, USDA can add produce benefits to SNAP and increase the availability of healthy products in WIC benefits. Investments in infrastructure that improves the technology for the storage and transport of vegetables and fruit are also long overdue.
But we can’t solve deeply embedded problems through government action alone. In fact, there’s even more opportunity–and responsibility–for the business community to address market failures and help build a culture of health.
Most of the food consumed in America comes from private businesses, not the government. Without drastic change from the companies that actually distribute and sell our nation’s food, we have no chance of addressing the growing divide between how the rich and poor in this country eat.
Food executives often say that they “just follow the consumer.” But that’s a cop out. Grocery stores, food manufacturers, and retailers together determine what’s available, how it’s displayed, and which products are marketed. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with selling ice cream and cookies. But it’s time that businesses use their assets to help the consumer make better food choices, as they’ve repeatedly told us they want to do.
Businesses must acknowledge food’s role in building and hindering health. This requires prioritizing the innovation, sourcing, and marketing of better foods. It’s time to move public health to the top tier of the corporate agenda, rather than simply including it as a talking point.
Corporate America can deploy behavioral economics to make healthy choices easier for consumers. For example, placing healthier snacking options on the end caps of grocery store aisles in place of potato chips and placing products at eye level rather than sugary soda.
Businesses can also redirect their ad dollars. As a country, we spend $14 billion per year advertising food–but only $1 billion is spent on advertising vegetables and fruits. We have some of the most creative minds in the country working on snack food ads. Let’s give them the exciting new challenge of making healthy fruit snacks as enticing as french fries.
Finally, businesses must choose and empower leaders who understand that they play a pivotal role in public health, and bear a crucial responsibility to consumers, not just shareholders. It was encouraging that after the World Economic Forum recently convened global food companies to determine how to better leverage food for health, the consensus was that food and health were too low on the corporate agenda. That can and must change.
We know bad foods eventually cause diseases like diabetes and can exacerbate others like COVID. We know good food builds health. Let’s respond to this burden of knowledge.
The White House Conference on Hunger, Health, and Nutrition must become the turning point for a new way of doing business that prioritizes our health. If it does, we may well look back on this period of diet-related disease as a bad memory, as antiquated as scurvy.
Nancy E. Roman is the president and CEO of Partnership for a Healthier America.
The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.
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