Sunday, November 8, 2009

Weekly Opinion/Editorial OKLAHOMA’S FOOD POLICE!
by Steve Fair

The “food police” are in Oklahoma. A couple of Tulsa area legislators recently held an interim study on how to get “healthy” grocery stores to come to the Sooner state. State Reps. Seneca Scott, D-Tulsa, and Jabar Shumate, D-Tulsa, want to determine how to incentivize rural and urban grocers that offer healthy, affordable, locally-grown produce and products. In other words, they want to use taxpayer dollars to get “mom and pop” healthy grocers that would compete with Whole Foods or some similar retailer.

During the interim study, Landon Norton of the Oklahoma Department of Health said that a recent Centers for Disease Control report showed Oklahoma state healthy food retail policies would positively impact its residents’ consumption of fruits and vegetables. The report found that Oklahoma had far fewer healthy food retailers than the national average and “food deserts” or areas with little access to healthy foods. “Access is not what it could be, not what it needs to be,” Norton said.

Scott, D-Tulsa, said it is clear that encouraging healthy neighborhood grocers could trigger more Oklahomans to begin living healthier lifestyles. “Oklahomans rank dead last nationally when it comes to nutrition and are the most likely Americans to suffer heart disease,” Scott, D-Tulsa, said. “Though lawmakers can’t force people to become healthy overnight, I think we can make healthy options available to them, while helping to support our local farmers and producers.”

Scott Smith, who spoke during the study, owns the type of store Scott and Shumate want to encourage. The Blue Jackalope Grocery Store is a small neighborhood grocer and coffee shop located in Tulsa’s Crosbie Heights neighborhood. Smith sells locally grown produce and says he has created a “community center” in his store. “The whole thing is the wonderful sense of connectedness that has resulted from what we’ve done at the store,” Smith said.

“Incentivizing healthy grocers helps the economy, lowers health care costs and, most importantly, means Oklahomans won’t have to choose between convenience and health,” Scott said. “One way to incentivize them could be to amend the state’s quality jobs act to benefit grocers,” he said. The Oklahoma Healthy Corner Stores Initiative is the proposed title of the legislation he hopes to carry in the next legislative session.

“In too many areas of the state we lack access to affordable, high quality, fresh foods,” Scott said. “The Oklahoma Legislature needs to help these working families and at the same time help local growers and small businesses, making it a win-win for all Oklahomans.”

Of the top ten “health conscious grocers ranked by only one operates in Oklahoma. Whole Foods (279 stores in 38 states) has a store in Tulsa and has announced they will soon build a store in OKC. The new Classen Curve shopping center near the Chesapeake Energy campus is the likely location, but no formal announcement has been made. But what Scott and Shumate want to give incentives to are “mom and pop” healthy grocers, not Whole Foods. The two challenges for the smaller “healthy” retailer is a consistent source of supply- finding a niche wholesaler who specializes in “healthy” products and could they generate sufficient volume to make money? There are a few wholesalers, but none in the central part of the United States and the issue of volume would be anyone’s guess. While Scott and Shumate’s actions don’t raise to the level of some of the nation’s food police, they still need to mind their own business and stop trying to tell us how to eat.

Consider some of the radical actions by the “Food Police.” The Public Health Advocacy Institute served notice to eight of the largest food producers in America they will sue food producers if they do not change formulas to help “slim down” America. That explains why Oreos don’t have as much delicious filling as they used to.

A group of lawyers have said they plan to start suing doctors who do not adequately warn patients about obesity. In several states, including Texas, soda pop has been banned in schools, even diet, but fruit juice, which contains more calories than pop remains. In one Massachusetts city, fast food restaurants are “banned” from coming to town. The Center for Science in the Public Interest advocates treating candy like porn and putting it behind the counter to discourage sales. Texas Agricultural Commissioner Susan Combs, who calls herself the “Food Czarina” says, shared sweets like birthday cakes should not be allowed in schools.

And it’s not just in the U.S. Did you know that in Canada, there is a “sin” tax on meals under $4 and in New Zealand, they “card”(check ages) when someone want to buy candy?

No matter how noble Scott and Shumate’s motives are, they are misguided. It is not the job of state government to tell Oklahomans what to eat and where to shop. With Oklahoma’s crumbling infrastructure and budget shortages, taxpayer dollars can be better spent dealing with real issues. Scott and Shumate should stay out of our cupboards.

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