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Obesity is one of the most serious health threats facing our nation. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than two-thirds of American adults and one-third of American youth are now obese or overweight. Obesity-related conditions make up several of the leading causes of death in the U.S. High rates of obesity are largely responsible for the United States’ declining health outcomes and rapidly rising healthcare costs. Lack of availability and affordability of healthy food contribute to the obesity epidemic. Laws and policies that promote healthy food and limit access to unhealthy food are critical tools in addressing the obesity epidemic.
As one example, at the federal level, in 2012, the U.S. Department of Agriculture updated the minimum nutritional standards for the national school breakfast and lunch programs to bring them in line with current nutritional science about what makes up a healthy diet for kids across different age groups. Additionally, the federal Affordable Care Act passed in 2010 includes provisions that require large chains of retail food establishments and vending machine operators to disclose calorie content of items on menus and in machinesand provide other important nutritional information, so that consumers can know what’s in the food they’re getting before they pay for it. This federal law also established minimum protections for working mothers who are breastfeeding, providing support forparents trying to ensure that their children get the best healthy eating start in life that they can. Finally, public health advocates are rapidly learning how federal agricultural policy impacts healthy eating efforts from the local to the national level.
Local and state governments have been instrumental in promoting healthy eating laws and policies, in a myriad of ways. For example, some localities have used urban planning tools such as zoning or licensing laws and incentive programs to regulate location and density of fast food outlets or to promote the availability of healthy foods in neighborhood corner stores. They have used zoning variances and financial incentives to encourage developers, grocers, and other property owners to locate grocery stores in underserved areas known as “food deserts.” State or local laws can set minimum nutrition standards for foods served in child care settings, can regulate the use of trans fats in restaurant foods, or can tax sugary beverages to decrease consumption rates. Many school districts have implemented nutritional standards for meals served in their schools that go beyond federal minimums. In addition, schools are considering ways to minimize sales and marketing of unhealthy foods to children in school settings through wellness policies, procurement contracts, and measures to limit the sale of competitive foods during the school day.
Organizations and employers can also use policy tools to promote healthy eating environments for their members or employees. They can use vending contracts to ensure that healthy foods are easily available and promoted on site. Worksite wellness policies can also promote availability of healthy foods on worksites and support employees’ efforts to eat healthy throughout the workday.
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Law impacts our health and our opportunities to lead healthy lives in multi-layered ways. This resource offers guidance on how to use the Five Essential Public Health Law Services Framework and other resources to address racism and other social determinants of health in the public health sector.