Rewriting our food future

By Carmen Peota

Some Minnesotans are aiming to do for obesity what the anti-tobacco movement did for smoking five years ago: create a new normal.

An effort is underway in the land of Jell-O salad and hot dish to ensure that people across the state have access to healthy foods so that individuals make better eating choices. One part of this massive undertaking, funded by a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant, is to write a food charter. The document will lay out what a new, healthier food system might look like in an attempt to get the organizations, individuals and funders who want to work on the problem of obesity pulling in the same direction. The work is being led by the Minnesota Department of Health but will involve those who grow, deliver, sell and prepare food as well as those involved in preventing, treating and paying for the health problems related to obesity.

The idea for the food charter emerged during a discussion about what could be done about the growing obesity problem, according to Lisa Gemlo, who heads the effort for the Department of Health. “We really wanted to put some work forward that brings people together, and this notion of collective impact came up,” she says. “Collective impact” is a term that originated at Stanford University. It refers to the need to galvanize many people and organizations in order to address society’s most “wicked” problems. “Obesity is one of those wicked problems,” Gemlo says, explaining that it’s multifactorial and involves individuals making choices multiple times a day. For that reason, she says, “it’s probably more challenging than something like smoking.”

The charter will address three questions: What is the state of the state with regard to food? Where does it want to go? And what is it going to take to get there? A draft is due by October of 2013 and a final version by September of 2014.

According to Donna McDuffie, Minnesota’s nutrition coordinator, three states have food charters. Oregon’s focuses solely on hunger, Michigan’s on agriculture and Iowa’s on policy. Minnesota’s aims to encompass all three of those realms and more. But she says there is no precedent for what Minnesota is doing. “Historically, we’ve gone after behavior change on an individual level,” she says. “We’re [now] going to be looking at the whole system—from the time the food gets planted to the time it gets to the fork.”

This story first appeared in the print edition of Minnesota Medicine.