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A New Lever to Combat Obesity: Government Purchasing Policies

A New Lever to Combat Obesity: Government Purchasing Policies

Picture of Marice Ashe

With escalating obesity rates and growing interest in "buying local," it's a prime moment for health reporters to shine a light on how state and local government leaders can build momentum for a public health strategy that many communities have long ignored.

Every day, government agencies and their contractors buy food in large quantities -- whether it's for hospital cafeterias, homebound seniors, or vending machines in city buildings. And the more they purchase, the greater the impact on community health.

By adopting healthier purchasing policies, state and local government agencies can use their high-volume buying power to build demand for fresh, local products while providing employees and residents with more access to nutritious foods. This access is especially critical in low-income communities, where healthy, affordable meals are often out of reach.

"Healthy procurement" can involve everything from meals provided through senior programs, child-care centers, and juvenile facilities to the foods and beverages offered in cafeterias, vending machines, and concession stands on government property. For example, a number of California communities, including Contra Costa County, Los Angeles, and Brentwood, have passed policies setting nutrition standards for products sold in vending machines on city property. These are good first steps, but there's much room to expand the use of these strategies to more locations.

Aside from the obvious benefits to individuals' well-being, healthier residents save governments money. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, healthier diets alone could prevent an estimate $71 billion each year in medical expenses, lost productivity, and lost lives nationwide.

Institutional purchasing is one way to help change the food landscape Californians experience on a daily basis. With healthier purchasing policies, state and local governments can help improve public health, lower overall costs, and provide leadership by example for the private sector to do the same.

For a primer on this issue, including a look at how purchasing decisions are made at the state and local level and the types of policies communities around the country are beginning to pursue, see our guide: Understanding Healthy Procurement: Using Government's Purchasing Power to Increase Access to Healthy Food.

For more about the advantages of locally sourced foods, see this policy brief from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

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