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GUEST COLUMN: Why a healthy food policy is essential

By: Jill Gaebler
February 15, 2015 Updated: February 15, 2015 at 4:30 am
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photo - Jill Gaebler, City Council 04/21/2013. Handout photo
Jill Gaebler, City Council 04/21/2013. Handout photo 

Although we dearly love our cellphones and central air conditioning, there are actually very few things in this amazing world that we truly need to survive. These life-sustaining elements are the Great Trifecta of air, water and food.

As we all know, policies ensuring the quantity and quality of our air and water are prolific, but not so well known is that policy around food is actually quite inadequate. Although food brings families together around a dinner table, fuels our bodies for work and athletic feats, and prevents and heals us from illness, food is considered by most to be accessible and plentiful and thus not in need of protecting. The need for food policy that supports and enhances our local food system, a system that begins the moment a seed is planted and ends when a fork of food enters our mouths, is actually very important to the quality of life of our citizens and the success of our community.

El Paso County residents produce only 1 percent of the food we eat. This negatively affects our local economy, as most food must be imported, driving up costs, limiting variety and, in a state of crisis, will likely result in food shortages.

Local food growers and producers struggle to compete with the big agricultural giants that benefit from economies of scale and enormous federal subsidies. These local, small businesses need food policy changes that will allow them to competitively sell their food products. Doing this will create new food-related, startup businesses, which in turn creates jobs, provides locals with a greater variety in food options, along with lower food costs.

Food policy can also strengthen private property rights to allow citizens the use of their land for more urban agriculture purposes. Many residents may not grow food in their front yards but are instead forced to grow only grass and sometimes only certain trees. This is a ridiculous overreach of neighborhood associations and local government and needs to change to reflect citizens' desire to live more self-sufficiently, eat more organically and save costs on fresh food.

Lastly, but most acutely, accessibility to nutritious food can be a significant challenge, especially for low-income community members. Only 6 percent of residents in Colorado Springs can walk to a food store within 10 minutes. This statistic often predicts the health of a community, as those who don't own vehicles or live far from a food store will often opt for fast food or junk food from a nearby convenience store. Although these food options are filling and cheap, they also contribute to our rising obesity rates and high rates of chronic disease.

A citizen board focused on food policy could ideally become an information hub that connects the public with resources and opportunities to make healthier choices. And of course, as more local food producers begin selling their produce, residents will have better access to fresh food, possibly grown by their next-door neighbor, who is now able to sell tomatoes out of his home, from the small greenhouse he has built in his backyard.

At the end of the day, it's food that people gather around - they break bread, they share stories, and together they build healthy bodies and minds. A healthy food system, anchored by effective policy, empowers individuals and families to make well-informed food choices all while encouraging a strong local food economy and, ultimately, a resilient and vibrant community that benefits us all.

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