Healthy Food: Luxury or Necessity?

In my blog, my cookbook, and in the cooking classes I teach, I talk a lot about cooking with local ingredients. I encourage people to seek out whole grains, unprocessed food, and to buy fresh, high quality ingredients from local farmers. Inevitably, when I make these recommendations, someone asks me whether my dietary ideals are unrealistic, unaffordable, or even elitist.

While I’d argue that they are not, the question does touch on an inescapable fact: unless you’re growing your own food, it is more expensive to get fresh, whole, chemical-free foods than it is to buy what’s available at the average supermarket. Instead of denying this reality, I’ve begun to ask myself: Why does it cost so much more to eat healthfully than it does to eat high-fat, high-sugar, chemically altered foods?

The answers to that question are complex and often controversial, and the politics of the American food system can seem overwhelming. Fortunately, we can start with our own consciences. Personally, I take it as a given that people of all income levels should be able to eat healthfully, particularly our nation’s children, who are still developing their immune systems. For many of our kids, school lunches may be the only square meal of the day, and yet a recent study in USA Today concluded that fast food chains have higher safety standards for meat than the National School Lunch Program. Clearly, something is terribly amiss with our food system.

Instead of dismissing the goal of making fresh, healthy food available to everyone as “too idealistic” or “elitist,” what if we mounted a serious effort to make it a reality? Growing numbers of people are saying it’s possible, and some are even coming up with plans to make it happen.

At the recent Food Climate Summit held on the campus of New York University this past December, the Manhattan Borough President, Scott Stringer, introduced the idea of a “Food Charter” for the city of New York. The charter lays out a plan of action to provide all city dwellers access to high quality food. I left the Summit feeling inspired, as well as reassured that someone in government is giving this important issue the attention it deserves.

Hunger, obesity, and diabetes are reaching tragic proportions in this country. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could make healthy food for all a real priority? The Food Charter gives me real hope that change is possible, and while the charter is specifically written for the city of New York, the issues it addresses are universal. We should all have access to affordable healthy food, for our children, our communities, and ourselves.

What do you think? Can we change the way this country eats? Can we solve the problem of hunger and poor nutrition in this country? Please take a look at the Charter and share your thoughts and comments.

Below is the food charter as it appears on the website of the Manhattan Borough President’s office.To learn more about the charter, or a pledge to support it, visit their website:



Food has a profound effect on the health and well-being of a community. The purpose of the NYC Sustainable Food Charter is to set forth the values and principles essential to a just, vibrant, and sustainable food system, and to spur the creation of such a food system for all New Yorkers.

1. Human Right

Access to nutritious, affordable, and culturally appropriate food is recognized internationally to be a basic human right. New York City should fully develop its foodshed and improve distribution systems in order to ensure easy access to healthy, sustainable food in all communities, particularly those with limited resources or at high risk for diet-related illnesses.

2. Equality

The harmful environmental, economic, and health consequences of the existing food system fall disproportionately on low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. New York City should erase this disparity and should combat hunger, obesity, and diabetes.

3. Health

It is indisputable that diet affects health. New York City should be committed to a food system that promotes increased preparation and consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and tap water. New York City should encourage moderation in the consumption of food, such as sweetened beverages, high fat animal products, and highly-processed food, which contributes to obesity, diabetes and other life-threatening diseases.

4. Environment

The food system, largely due to the livestock industry, is estimated to cause one-third of the world’s global warming. To lessen environmental harm, New York City should reduce greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the production, distribution, storage, preparation, sale and disposal of food, and should increase the amount of food produced and processed regionally by farmers using sustainable practices.

5. Economy

Strong local food economies lead to prosperous and healthy communities and are the key to building truly sustainable food systems. While national and international food systems will continue to co-exist alongside local systems, New York City should support the creation of a robust regional foodshed by working with farmers, processors, distributors, and retailers to harness our urban buying power.

6. Labor

The food industry is one of New York City’s largest employers. New York City should invest in improving and creating new local and regional employment opportunities in food production, processing, sales, distribution, and disposal. Employees in sustainable food systems should work under safe conditions, be paid a living wage, and be exposed to opportunities for entrepreneurship.

7. Education

Education regarding nutrition, agriculture, cooking, and the environmental impact of food choices, leads to healthier communities. New York City should provide to all residents the skills, training, and knowledge necessary to participate in the creation of a sustainable food system.

8. Community

New York City’s food culture is as diverse as its population, and the region possesses a rich agricultural history. New York City should support farming, food preparation, and distribution practices that preserve community traditions, cultural diversity, and cherished diets, within a food system that fosters personal and public health, and local agriculture.

9. Collaboration

To advance the development of a sustainable food system and thereby improve the health of residents, communities, and the environment, New York City should encourage open and vigorous dialogue among government agencies, community organizations, educators, healthcare providers, food industry representatives, local and national businesses, non-profit advocates, faith communities, and residents.

10. Food Policy

New York City’s government institutions at all levels should engage in ongoing development of food policy aimed at ensuring individual and community health, climate change mitigation, economic development, and equal access to healthy food. These policies should be grounded in core principles refined and adopted through democratic debate.

Originally posted on on January 8, 2010.

5 thoughts on “Healthy Food: Luxury or Necessity?

  1. Wow; amazing to see that a municipal board is finally doing the right thing and standing up for real food; now we gotta get on Michelle Obama about this—she's with the program, isn't she?

  2. I think Michelle Obama is doing a lot to get Americans thinking about healthy eating. I think her attitude has opened a place in our national dialogue about food so that someone like Scott Stringer can step in and get tough.

  3. I feed a family of four- We are a middle class family and have stopped eating meat because we do not want to support the industrialized monopoly that it has become. We do not yet call ourselves vegetarians because we would eat meat if we can find a source that is organic and raised with integrity.

    We have a garden but I work 10 hour days and did not put up the amount of food I should have. It is an ongoing goal and we plan on doubling the size of our garden.

    With all that being said I have to say two things- We buy as much fresh food as possible – it is very very expensive. We do not buy any prepackaged meals or food- there is still things in our diet that should not be like our cheese source but I just cannot afford it all. I am lucky – we cook – my family likes real food but I have to say it is time consuming and expensive and I know why it is so hard for the general public.

  4. Good for you and your family! It sounds like you're really trying to live your ideals. It's extremely challenging to make every single food purchase represent your beliefs, but if everyone tried as hard as you and your family I think the food system would change pretty rapidly. And I can think of a lot worse things than being vegetarian.

  5. Good for you and your family! It sounds like you're really trying to live your ideals. It's extremely challenging to make every single food purchase represent your beliefs, but if everyone tried as hard as you and your family I think the food system would change pretty rapidly. And I can think of a lot worse things than being vegetarian.

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