One-quarter of Americans are obese. Sixty percent live a sedentary lifestyle. And this generation of kids is the first generation since 1900 that may have a shorter life expectancy than their parents. The health of America, the world’s richest nation, is failing. And what we eat (or don't eat) could be to blame. A bag of Cheetos is cheaper than a bag of apples; unhealthy processed foods are more prevalent (and less expensive) than whole foods; families eat dinner away from home more than ever before. When you hear stats like this, it's easy to feel discouraged. But changing our food landscape isn’t just advisable—it is essential.
If you’re unhappy with the way things are, consider how they got like this in the first place. McDonald’s doesn’t make cheap hamburgers because laws require them to. They make cheap hamburgers because people buy them. Clearly, both the problem and the solution are in our hands.
The decisions we make every day—what to eat, where to shop, how to commute—may seem small, but they send a clear message about what is important to us. If you think that change only comes from the top, and voting only happens at the polls, think again. Every time you buy food, clothing, fuel, or entertainment, you are, in essence, voting for the company that produced, packaged, and marketed it. Every time we spend money, the recipient of our dollars gets the message that we approve of their product and we want more of it. But the inverse is also true. Some cases in point:
You might not be old enough to remember Rosa Parks and the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, but you certainly learned about the success of that 11-month nonviolent protest. People carpooled, walked, and biked to send a powerful message that it was time for change. Every dime that wasn’t tossed into the bus company’s coffers was a vote against racial segregation. In the end, the U.S. Supreme court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional.
You surely aren’t old enough to remember the 1791 sugar boycott in England, but it’s another example of how small decisions can really add up. At the time, Britain’s largest import was slave-produced sugar, but there was a growing anti-slavery sentiment in the nation. When Parliament refused to abolish slavery, a boycott was organized. Sales of slave-produced sugar dropped significantly, while sales of Indian sugar, produced without slavery, rose exponentially. Women, who didn’t even have the right to vote, brought about awareness and change by simply buying a different “brand” of sugar.
Election Day happens every day. You have the opportunity to cast your vote and change the world at almost every turn—or at the very least, every meal. What would you vote for if everything was on a ballot: Lower rates of obesity? Healthy food that's affordable? Humanely raised meat? How about healthy school lunch menus, more accountability in the food industry, pedestrian and bike-friendly cities, or more community vegetable gardens?
Here are 10 simple ways that you can "vote with your fork" every time you shop, eat, or dine out.
Vote for lower health care costs. Most of our country's health problems stem from lifestyle diseases that are preventable. So let's all do our part to prevent them and cut everyone's health care costs. Feed yourself (and your kids) fresh, home-cooked meals more often. Exercise regularly. And don't smoke.
Vote against disposable bags at the grocery store. Keep paper and plastic bags out of landfills by bringing your own shopping bags every time you shop.
Vote for healthy food choices at restaurants. When you do choose to eat fast food or dine out, choose the healthy options. This helps send a clear message that people want healthy meals, making it more likely that restaurants will keep these dishes on the menu—and add more like them.
Vote against unhealthy food choices. Have you ever noticed that chips, cookies, sweets and candy take up more space in the grocery store than healthy foods do? If you're tired of unhealthy foods tempting you at every turn, then turn them down yourself. Part of the reason these foods are so prevalent is that people do buy them. Send your message loud and clear by not supporting companies who don't seem to have the health of their consumers in mind.
Vote for locally grown produce. Your local farmers market offers seasonal food that's fresh, healthy, and eco-friendly. When you spend your food dollars at your local farmers market, you're voting for the farmer, his farming methods, the farmers market and your community. Buying local food casts a vote against conventionally grown produce that's imported or shipped thousands of miles to your supermarket even though it's already available close to home.
Vote against the inhumane treatment of animals. If it bothers you to think about the conditions where your meat, poultry, eggs and milk come from, then don't support it. Choose meatless meals more often, or spend your dollars on companies and local farmers who raise animals more humanely.
Vote for organically-grown food. If you believe in the health, environmental or nutritional benefits of organic food, then dedicate a portion of your food dollars to supporting it. You'll be voting against pesticides, the companies who develop and produce them, the industrial agribusinesses who use them, the effects they have on people and the environment. Sure organic is more expensive, but that's partly because demand is high and supply is low. When you buy organic, you tell farmers and retailers that organic matters to you—and that can change the selection and prices in your favor.
Vote against eating on the run. When you buy ingredients and cook at home, you're telling restaurants and eat-on-the-run food manufacturers that you don't agree with their cooking methods, ingredients, or fast food philosophy. There are so many benefits to eating meals at home, from saving money to bonding with your family to eating healthier. Plus how much can you really enjoy the experience of drinking soup from a container that fits in your car's cup holder? Let's bring food back where it belongs—the kitchen table.
Vote for smaller portions. We often see big portions as a good value, but are they really? If you can't finish it, the food goes to waste. If you do finish it, you're eating more than you should (and likely paying for it with health problems and medical care later). Buy smaller portion sizes when they're available to tell restaurants and manufacturers what you really think about burritos as big as your head.
Vote against food waste. Fast food, convenience foods, bottled beverages and single-use cups generate a lot of waste. When possible, choose foods that use less packaging, and bring your own reusable containers for leftovers, coffee and water. You'll be helping the environment and cutting food costs by spending less on packaging.
If you get frustrated at the current food environment, do something about it. Every dollar you spend, every food choice you make, and every meal you eat is an opportunity to vote for what you believe in. We can't change the way our food environment is structured overnight, but we can make a difference three times a day by voting with our forks.