Incentivize Food Stores to Lift Public Health

January 17, 2011

Could a new federal money trail help supermarkets do more to improve public nutrition, fitness and product savvy?

Just as retailers receive tax incentives for opening stores in food deserts, could they not earn government subsidies for other public health initiatives?

The Lempert Report proposes this as part of the federal government’s full-court press on obesity. Already, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is working with local jurisdictions to fund a variety of health and fitness projects, The Wall Street Journal reported. Two examples: a 30-minutes-per-day after-school physical activity program five days a week in Pinellas County, Florida, and a plan to have streets accommodate walkers, runners and cyclists in Birmingham, Alabama.

So imagine what supermarkets could do as central community establishments to foster fitness and better nutrition, if appropriately rewarded. It’s infeasible to think supermarkets would dive in without government support because, after all, their stakeholders rely on store profits from selling food. If supermarkets were to hire local dietitians, nutritionists and exercise experts to help local citizens eat better, get healthier and fitter, expenses would need to be shared. Ditto if food stores were to send speakers to schools to discuss intelligent food choices in evening sessions. Or steer savings and discount programs towards healthier purchases people could make. Or develop online or in-person one-on-one counseling programs.

There’s plenty that supermarkets could do. It would be huge for stores to be seen as proactive health advocates rather than as purveyors of tempting junk alongside good foods, which it seems most people know too little about in order to consistently resist the bad and make wiser choices instead. Yet, as much as stores would benefit, communities would likely benefit more. It’s time for serious public-private funding formulas to be devised that adequately share costs for supermarket-centered programs that instruct, activate and directly lead to public gain.