The uproar surrounding Health Minister Yaakov Litzman’s “McDonald’s speech” and the ministry’s announcement that it is establishing a committee to promote healthy nutrition has sparked discussions about how to ensure that healthy food is part of the fight against the harmful effects of obesity. But no such debate can occur without mentioning the need for a policy that will guarantee food security. According to international definitions, food security exists when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.
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This outlook calls for holistic thinking about the issue of food: Lack of food security results not only in malnutrition but also in overconsumption and undernutrition. Food security is not just about ensuring that we have enough food, but that our food is safe and healthful. Israel has the National Nutritional Security Council but the state comptroller and Prof. Dov Chernichovsky, the council’s chairman, have been critical of the state for not seriously advancing any food security policy.
The program recommended by the council was not adopted and no funds were allocated for it. But even the program, which is primarily focused on funds for and regulation of food distribution to the needy, is only the tip of the iceberg. Distribution to the needy is no substitute for an economic policy that ensures people can afford to buy sufficient quantities of healthy food.
The Health Ministry’s committee only touches on one part of the story. Welfare policy is just as important. The 2011 social protest movement began over food prices. The “cottage cheese protest” was swallowed up by the housing protest, but the issue of food prices was at the heart of several reforms that were enacted in wake of the demonstrations. These reforms, aimed at lowering prices, will probably not be enough, as they fail to address the other side of the coin — namely, reducing poverty. There is a correlation between the 2003 cutbacks in guaranteed income allowances and the increase in the number of people affected by a lack of food security.
Moreover, some of the reforms may end up doing more harm than good. Take, for instance, the “steak reform” that’s aimed at reducing prices for meat and dairy products, including processed meat. What’s the point in government criticism of McDonald’s when the government itself encourages the consumption of meat and dairy products while ignoring the problems entailed in their excessive use? Excess consumption of these foods can cause deleterious effects on our health, the environment and animal welfare. The Health Ministry comes out against the sale of processed meat; meanwhile another government policy is trying to lower its price.
A holistic approach to food security would seek to lower prices on food products that are part of a healthy diet. A basic and affordable “food basket” must be recognized, as proposed in a policy paper by Atid, an organization of dietitians and nutritionists, and other groups. To achieve food security, healthy food must be more accessible and steps should be taken be taken simultaneously to eradicate poverty. Measures such as banning the sale of sweets in schools are important but far from enough, particularly when numerous studies have shown that food rich in calories supplied by fat and cheap sugars are disproportionately consumed by poorer populations. A comprehensive approach is needed to examine the amalgam of factors that influence what goes on our plate, to ensure not just that we have enough to eat and that our food is tasty, but that it is good for us too.