Harlem Word: Pam Koch says our food system decides what we eat

Pam Koch, EdD, RD, Executive Director of the Center for Food and Environment at Columbia University’s Teachers College, explains how the food system makes it difficult to make healthy food choices.

Q: What is the biggest challenge for most people who want to make healthy food choices?

A. I believe that the foods we have available around us are the biggest challenge. That is we have a food system problem. It’s not about individuals having a hard time making choices about the food they cook or eat; it is the system that people are making the choices in that is causing the problem.

Q: Could you explain what you mean by that?

A: Here in the US, it is too easy to get large portions of unhealthy food for not very much money. For instance, we can buy sweet things to drink everywhere, and they are really inexpensive−20−ounce bottles are the common size for sweetened drinks and they cost about $1.50. In Northern Manhattan, it can be hard to get foods that are healthy and affordable, but it’s really easy to get foods that are not so healthy and don’t cost a lot. These highly processed foods are often made with lots of added fat, sugar and salt; they taste good but are not good for our health.

Q: So what can a person do if there is so little choice in the US food “system”?

A: I think that every single time we make a purchase, we are voting with our food dollars. Food companies are not thinking, “What’s the best thing for people’s health?” They are thinking, “What are people going to buy so that we can make money on it?”  The more that we demand healthy options, the more healthy foods are going to be available.

Q: Is there anything we can do right now, while we are in this profit-focused food system?

A: Sure, instead of buying a 20-ounce bottle of a sweetened drink and having it all yourself, consider pouring yourself an 8 ounce cup instead. Better yet, drink tap water. New York City has some of the best tap water in the world. You can also find creative ways to get healthy food like fresh fruits and vegetables for reasonable prices at the farmers market or other places. Also, learn easy ways to prepare seasonal foods, because they usually have better prices. These are small actions, but they can make a big difference to your health. 

Harlem Word is a series of interviews with Northern Manhattan health experts, written by HHPC and reviewed by our Health Advisory Board.

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