Scaling up from an individual perspective to a system perspective
Do you see a problem in the pictures below?
The first is a “system specification” and presumably represents what we as the people and government of the US would like our food system to deliver affordably to our plates. The second is what a single and very profitable outlet node of our food system is optimized to deliver affordably to our stomachs. Obviously, the fruits and vegetables are missing, the fats and sugars are oversized and a new food group called coffee has emerged.
On its own, this is not a problem. There are examples of system specifications that can be met even if every output node doesn’t conform to the overall system specification. For example, we have Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that are designed to keep almost everyone in the country mobile without clogging the air we share with too much pollution. We know that we’ll see someone who paid a luxury tax driving a gas guzzling Ferrari or SUV once in a while, but that’ll be more than made up for by the gas sipping economy vehicles and mini-SUVs that car companies have an incentive to develop, build and sell at affordable prices to the majority of customers.
The problem from a system perspective
The loud debate over whether food science and marketing or lack of personal responsibility are to blame for our nation’s eating problem has, in my opinion, left a third culprit largely off the hook. Almost all of us were taught at some point what the system specification for daily food consumption is through the Food Pyramid, or now MyPlate. We’re all aware that many specialty outlets exist that violate this specification. I believe the real problem with our food system is that we all have come to ASSUME that there are other nodes out there making up the difference and we don’t hold ourselves or anyone else accountable for the FACT that there are not. The third culprit is a lack of verification and validation of our food system’s performance.
Consider your favorite grocery store. Surely that’s an output node where you can definitely meet the system specification. Do you know of any grocery store that allocates their aisle real estate or even remotely close to how MyPlate is allocated? My guess is that you recall rows and rows of processed and packaged grains, fats, and sugars and a relatively modest sized fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables aisle. Remember, we’re not simply looking for outlet nodes that meet the system spec, we’re looking for nodes that make up for all the “specialty” nodes that we know violate it. Stand at the checkout for a day and you’d be hard pressed to come up with a single shopper who has more bags of fruits and veggies than they do other stuff. Where are we making up the difference? The reality is that if every man, woman, and child in the US wanted to eat the way the USDA recommendations are laid out, we do not produce and cannot import enough specialty crops (that’s what fruits and vegetables are to the USDA) to make it affordable. Further, if you’re reading this on a personal computer, you’re not even close to the demographic that this way of eating needs to be affordable for. Is the land we share to grow our food polluted with crops that ultimately injure our health or or is it allocated in a way that supports our collective wellness?
Solutions from a system perspective
Relax, I’m not saying that the system specification is necessarily the right goal and I’m definitely not demonizing the fast food outlets that I frequent and cherish. What I am saying is that a fundamental function of system design and development is missing from our food system, that of verification and validation. Verification would mean that we are testing and reporting that in summation, our system is delivering what we specified. If it isn’t, mitigation plans to fix the situation would be initiated. Can you imagine Corporate Average Food Offering (CAFO) standards or luxury taxes for global packaged food corporations and restaurant chains and ultimately those of us who like to eat their foods? Validation would mean that if people are eating what they want and thriving by consuming in a way that is different from the specification, that we would change the specification. How about publishing a “good enough” version of MyPlate so we can all stop worrying about how we’re not eating right even though we can’t afford to.
The discrepancy between our food system specification and results delivered bugs me because it seems to suggest that we’re content to do little to nothing about closing the gap while complaining that it’s the source of many of our nation’s health woes. I welcome your comments.
Photo courtesy of Flickr