Obesity rates have rapidly increased over the past two decades. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of adults (39.8%) in the United States were obese in 2017.
This not only creates many long-term health problems, but also significantly impacts workforce wellness and economic sustainability. Cities with exceptionally high obesity rates have an estimated $50 million extra of costs associated with obesity and related chronic conditions.
Most of the time health and weight issues are classified as individual problems, but things aren’t always that simple. In fact, policies passed by local governments can have a big impact on the health of its residents.
CityHealth recently released a report on whether officials in the 40 largest U.S. cities implemented food procurement policies to make healthy food more accessible in city-run facilities — awarding them with a gold, silver, bronze or no medal.
"[Food procurement is] a starting point where a city can practice and ensure that their own employees, or the people that come to visit them, are getting the right kinds of foods — and that’s how you start to create difference," says CityHealth President Shelley Hearne.
The report includes Milwaukee, but the city did so poorly in food procurement that it didn't get a score. So what does that mean for our health, and what more can be done?
To start, Hearne says policy needs to be included in the bigger picture when it comes to health.
"We’re right now in an absolute obesity crisis that is affecting millions of people in this country and, of course, part is personal behavior, but an enormous element that contributes to this problem are the challenges we face every day," she says.
While the recent report focuses on food procurement specifically, other issues such as a city's lack of walkability, food deserts, high quality pre-K programs, earned sick leave, raising the tobacco age and smoke-free air laws contribute to the bigger picture.
"If you want to give everybody a chance in your city to have a high quality, healthy life, these are the basic set of laws that should be on the books," says Hearne.
Places where food procurement can be implemented range from parks, sports arenas, airports, city buildings, public hospitals, senior and recreational centers, and more. With such a wide array of facilities, food access can mean everything from food and drink vending machines to cafeterias.
Hearne notes that food procurement policy is not about policing what people should eat, but rather about making sure there are greater choices that meet nutritional standards. She compares it to the smoking ban implemented in restaurants and other public places — instead of driving away business, it brought more.
"It's working," says Hearne. "It actually is showing good economic returns for those cities. That's the surprise for many, that it actually can be a boon to their food sales because consumers are really paying attention to not just wanted salt, sugar and fat but have choices on other kinds of foods to be available."
Food procurement is certainly not the only step or policy that can help create a better environment for residents, notes Hearne. The results have proven that more food choices will lead to better outcomes.
And while a person's health is part personal decisions and behaviors, "if you're in an environment where you can't even factor that in if you don't have access to healthy food, then you're basically being forced into a direction that is really tough to stay at a healthy weight and a healthy life."