Last week, the Senate Subcommittee on agriculture released their proposed appropriations for fiscal year 2012. The subcommittee’s jurisdiction covers a wide area, but I am concerned with three sections: (1) domestic nutrition, (2) federal research dollars, and (3) conservation funds. This post focuses on the first – domestic nutrition. Future posts will discuss the others.
In the context of food systems, federal funds for nutrition partially address the problem of food access. My reading of the press release (http://appropriations.senate.gov/news.cfm?method=news.view&id=8af3a7f2-4f62-4dab-ba9f-108744d63c58) suggests that nutrition benefits are receiving slightly less funding in the coming fiscal year (note that I haven’t attempted to dig deeper into the allocation across programs by checking other sources).
Taking a step back can provide a framework for thinking about food access and policy as specified in the appropriations bill. Most of our concern focuses on access to healthy food (why promote more potato chip consumption??)
In my view, access to healthy food has multiple dimensions:
1. Access in terms of income – some people can’t afford to buy food.
2. Access in terms of geography – some people can’t get to a retail venue that sells food. In some cases, the person is unable to travel to the store because he or she is disabled or lacks transportation. In other situations, the person may live in a ‘food desert,’ or a neighborhood that lacks stores that carry food. More on this in a later post.
3. Access in terms of education about healthy food (or healthy diet). Some people do not know what constitutes a healthy diet. This is really not surprising, when you think about all of the hoopla that surrounds the dietary guidelines (see www.foodpolitics.com, for my colleague Marion Nestle’s insights into the guidelines). In economic lingo, our level of education influences our tastes and preferences for different foods.
In the end, whether a person consumes a healthy diet depends on actual choices he or she makes. This is the outcome of a decision, which (following elementary demand theory) is based on food prices, household income, tastes and preferences, and food availability. However, our high rates of overweight and obesity suggest that people may not choose to consume a healthy diet even if they have sufficient income and are near stores or markets that sell healthy food. Recent work by behavioral economists suggests that our food consumption decisions are influenced by so many complex factors, and that the simplistic model described here – which is one of optimization – really does not represent how we make our food choices (again, more on this work in future posts).
The lion’s share of the federal nutrition program addresses access in terms of income. In a way, this is the easiest type of access to overcome: if you transfer income to consumers, the total amount of food they can purchase rises as well. In fact, I would argue that this type of food access would be classified as a “tame” rather than a “wicked” problem. While some people object to the principle of income transfers to the poor (ie, this group would suggest that people need to earn more money), no one argues with the concept that more income = access to more food.
However, if our social goal is to improve the health of society, the federal nutrition programs do not address the most important and most difficult problems: that of geographic access or that of food choice. In fact, most of the efforts that I am aware of that examine the wicked problems of food access are being addressed by forward thinking nonprofits, on the ground advocacy groups, and in some cases, city governments.