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Why healthy eating ought to be a basic human right

Portrait of salad food which is believed to be healthy eating

Why healthy eating ought to be a basic human right and why we are not there yet

All of us at Unbox have a lot of opinions. That’s putting it lightly. But if there is one thing we will stand by regardless of what happens, it’s that access to healthy food should be up there with the other human rights we’ve come to accept and respect. We’ll go further than that and say healthy eating should be a basic human right. Please don’t get us misunderstood though. Healthy or unhealthy diets should be chosen freely. But it shouldn’t be so difficult for anyone to adopt a healthy one either. So, let’s cut to the chase. Here are three reasons why healthy eating ought to be a basic human right.

Healthy foods are significantly more expensive than unhealthy ones

Not everyone can afford a healthy diet. Let me rephrase that: Some of us are born in a situation where it will be impossible for them to even have the chance to eat healthily. Surely that can’t be right. The first article of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” If having a diet that allows me to live a full and healthy life does not fall under dignity, I’m not sure what does. The problem is not that there be sufficient food available (we will get to that later), but that people have the means to access it and that it adequately meets the individual's dietary needs.

The choice between healthier or cheaper alternatives should not be made on a budget but on preference.

A study led by researchers from the Harvard medical and public health schools concluded that on average, it cost $1.50 (€ 1.35) per day to shop healthy. At face value, it may not seem like much, but that increase eventually adds up to an extra $550 every year. For families that are already struggling as it is, not even accounting for the toll of recent events, those $550 are an unsurmountable gap.

Truly, there are no two ways about it: a life that can’t be led in a healthy way cannot, in any sense of the word, be dignified. There is no such thing as a dignified life where healthy eating is not a viable option.

We all know by now that eating healthy reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. What few people do know however, is that the diet of a young adult in the first seven years of his life outside the family home will decide the way they eat for the rest of their adult life. Putting this into perspective, the moment at which people are the most financially vulnerable in their adult life is also the moment where buying the more expensive food options will count the most to their future health. By any standards, this is a punishing calculus, and there are few ways in which an individual can leave this a winner.

Read more: Delhaize and Unbox launch the Healthy Membership Program

Unhealthy diets will have a long-term socio-economic impact on public spending

“Looking good” is usually a consequence of healthy eating, the cherry on the proverbial (and hopefully low sugar) cake and all things considered, not so bad. On the contrary, the consequences of an unhealthy diet are much more dire and far-reaching than a single individual. What looks like an individual choice can have a tremendous and inarguably detrimental effect on society. Indeed, as the upsides of a healthy and well-balanced diet stretch far beyond what meets the eye, so do the downsides of an unhealthy one such as the substantial healthcare costs associated with obesity and bad health caused by malnutrition.

In Belgium, one in four children grows up in nutritional poverty. Note that these figures only include the children of families where both parents work. I’ll let you imagine how it would change if we factored in minorities like single parents, the elderly, and people of lower socio-economic status.

It’s a genuinely horrifying (and reinforcing) vicious circle: negative dietary patterns are fuelled by a perceived individual increase but result in a palpable collective decrease of purchasing power. Adding to that the fact that unhealthy eating habits are often encouraged, sometimes even celebrated, unhealthy food’s lower price tag, hyper convenience and engineered palatability makes this a recipe for disaster (in fact, the disaster has already occurred, this is damage control).

The potential impact of a food tax of 10% on unhealthy food (food rich in saturated fat, sugar and/or salt) over 20 years was examined among the overweight and obese Belgian population and showed a significant drop in their BMI and nationwide savings ranging up to 2.23 billion euros. More importantly though, over those 20 years, an estimated 185,000 years were added to the country’s collective life expectancy.

How would these numbers have changed if instead of a tax, the government had offered a subsidy? In other words, how successful would this policy be if it encouraged good behaviours without punishing bad ones? If you know anything about our beliefs, then you’ll know how strongly we stand behind this position.

Read more: Unbox and Foundation Robin join forces to tackle educational inequality in Belgium

Making healthy food affordable for everyone is possible.

A lot of us misunderstand this but the real issue is not one of resources but of ineffective resource allocation. Given the right incentives, software, and subsidies, governments, employees and employers can restructure the market in a way that is beneficial to all. Last year, we ran a pilot program with Delhaize to back this claim up.

The concept was simple enough: reward the customers who chose to fill their carts with healthy food (NutriScore A&B) by giving them a 20% increase in their purchasing power. The results were nothing less than astounding. By giving consumers this extra purchasing power we saw the quantity of shoppers filling their carts with healthy foods increase by 35%.

Not only did this positive change in consumer behaviour confirm our belief that carrots are more effective than stick. It showed us that with the right incentives and a reasonable market structure, genuine change was possible and within our grasp. The opportunity is there, and we count on seizing it. Let’s make the world a better place.

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