Healthy food for kids starts in the home, but the choices families make are influenced by what Marion Nestle calls the broader ‘food environment’ (social, commercial, and institutional influences on food choice). As she argues in her book Food Politics, food choices are a matter of personal responsibility and social responsibility. And one of the constructive things we can collectively do is to improve the ‘food environment’ so that healthy choices become the default.
This is the approach in France, where (for example) regulations on school lunches are much more stringent than in North America. The result is delicious, healthy, and affordable menus (you can read them at my French Kids School Lunch Project).
Another way in which a healthy ‘food environment’ is encouraged in France–and indeed all across Europe–is through the Common Agricultural Policy (roughly Europe’s equivalent of the US Farm Bill). Now, the CAP (as it’s known) has been the subject of much criticism for its subsidy policy (and I agree with many of these criticisms, particularly regarding oversupply and food pricing).
However, there are some good aspects to the CAP, and some of them are very relevant to a healthy food environment for children (and indeed everyone):
1. The CAP supports the production of fresh fruits and vegetables. In contrast, the US Farm Bill has disincentives that actually discourage them in favor of processed foods, and concentrates support on a few products, including wheat and feed grains, oilseeds, cotton, sugar, and dairy).
2. The CAP has a much lower share of spending for ‘domestic food aid’, which is usually run separately from agricultural subsidies. In France, for example, municipalities are responsible for school lunch budgets, which they recover from local taxes. Subsidies for families are dealt with by local governments, who also have complete control over the food served in the schools. This means that school lunches don’t get caught up in special-interest politics at the national level.
3. The CAP (particularly the recently announced reforms) supports a sustainable food production system, including support for rural economies and environmentally friendly farming practices.
European farm subsidies are often a point of comparison for U.S. farm leaders and legislators, but they usually focus on the total dollar amount of subsidies, in order to bolster arguments about maintaining levels of farm subsidies in the US. But there is a lot more we could learn from the European approach, notably their strategies for fostering a healthy ‘food environment’ for producers and consumers alike.