Food policy does no good. Here’s how to fix it.

When I joined the staff of a nonprofit community foundation in Washington, D.C., about a decade ago, I came up with a novel idea.

Food banks that did just that — give out cash to people facing hunger — would be great, I thought. But food bank organizations do so much more, and only those organizations could produce the data we’d need to prove that food banks produced measurable positive social and economic impact for clients.

We encouraged groups with food bank programs to prepare professional development programs and sent them to us to present their results. All told, $200,000 in grants resulted. Each effort showed the same thing: Through community-based food banks, people who needed food and food pantries got it.

But what about the work that led to that food? How does it benefit people who came to those food banks? How did spending all those dollars on food policy affect the area’s economic fabric? Can food policies change the lives of the people who need them most?

In practice, America’s Food Policy Council research shows us that the answer is no. Food policy has little or no impact on poverty levels, on race, on the likelihood of having health insurance or of being in good schools.

Over the last 15 years, we have analyzed food policy change in all 50 states, and we’ve found that in every single one, policymaking made no direct, measurable difference. We think we know why. Food policy is, for the most part, inefficient at implementing social change. Too often, those who write laws and regulations and sell those rules to policymakers did not study the effects they had on communities and people. They had no incentive to do so.

We believe we have found a way to change that. We have discovered how you change information, and we call it “packaging information.” In food policy, our packaging is complicated nutrition labels. For many years, the federal government mandated that all food packages contain at least “enriched fat-free or low-fat milk.” In 2007, when Congress asked what product should be on the labels, the government’s Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health recommended skim or low-fat milk products. In 2010, Congress acted, requiring that all food packages contain fat-free or low-fat milk, chicken, pork and fish.

But new claims that food can save lives or improve health can be misleading. As we’ve found time and again, those claims are based on flawed studies. For example, claims that foods with more fiber or antioxidants help prevent heart disease are false.

In our work, we have discovered how the wrong way to make food policy could cause even more harm. Instead of making good information more available to policymakers, we think we can get policymakers to use good information more wisely.

Simply put, we have found that people living in poverty often do not receive necessary vitamins and minerals. Healthy foods aren’t expensive and in many cases, nutritious foods are just as affordable. We can provide people with the basic information they need to make better food choices and provide subsidies for healthy food and promotions for healthy foods. That’s the powerful weapon we have against obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

There’s good news, too. We found that even in these challenging economic times, people who have a well-informed understanding of nutrition are making better choices. We don’t expect someone suffering from diabetes or heart disease to fill out a questionnaire about nutrition. It’s up to us to provide information on nutrition and the cost of choosing healthy food products.

All told, we have identified 69,000 dollars in necessary public funding to disseminate this new packaging information, which should be available soon to all, and our agency is working with state regulators, nonprofits and government agencies on this issue. The future of food policy could be just around the corner.

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