Helping The Obese Help Themselves: Shuttle service helps people access healthy food

Commentary, Poverty, Joseph Quesnel

In discussing effective ways to promote health foods or curb societal obesity, most plans tend to focus on preventing people from accessing foods deemed unhealthy.
One example late last year was the decision by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to ban the McDonald’s Happy Meal. Closer to home, we have discussions about banning trans fats and this past September, provincial health ministers asked Ottawa to come up with mandatory sodium content requirements for packaged foods.
The problem with these plans is that, while they are well intentioned, they fail to respect individual choice and end up treating adults like children.
Forgetting autonomy
Over-zealous individuals concerned about health forget they are dealing with autonomous individuals who respond to incentives and disincentives.
They fail to understand part of the problem is foods deemed unhealthy are cheaper and easier to access. Thinking of some remote, northern Manitoba First Nation reserves, much of the food is meant to last, so you don’t get the fresh food you need.
So, part of the solution would be to help people access healthy food cheaply and conveniently. This way there is more of an incentive to make that choice.
Well, one private organization in Winnipeg is doing just that. Rather than limit people’s food choices, they are making it easier for some Winnipeg residents to better access healthy options.
While the project aims at people with limited mobility, the concept could be adapted for residents of limited means.
The North End Food Security Network is conducting a pilot project involving a minivan shuttle service that takes people with limited mobility to partnering grocery stores. These people have to rely on nearby convenience stores for food items.
Allowing them to access grocery stores allows them to get healthier and cheaper options, as food prices at convenience stores are high.
The project has certainly helped some with special conditions. One man with Type 1 diabetes reported being quite pleased over having access to fruits and vegetables at affordable prices. With his condition, he needs to eat healthy and the closest option for him was a convenience store as he walks with a cane.
The good aspect of the plan is it does not seek to regulate convenience stores or demonize them. It simply empowers people to make good choices when they are convenient and affordable for them. The plan respects freedom of choice for individuals, yet aims to help people lead healthier lives.
Expanding options
According to media reports, more than 20 shuttles are booked until the provincial pilot program funding runs out in March. After that, the province will decide whether to continue the project. One hopes they do.
In fact, rather than waste energy and resources limiting “unhealthy” foods or trying to limit fast food restaurants, those concerned about obesity and health challenges should look into expanding options like the North End Food Security Network for more groups of people, especially families with lower incomes.
Or expand shuttle services to deliver good, cheap food to people’s homes.
Respecting freedom and expanding health are not mutually exclusive goals.