This past week I started my summer internship at my city’s health department. I’m working within the nutrition and physical activity program, which works through policy, media, and with retailers and healthcare providers to reduce chronic disease in our city. I am extremely lucky to have this opportunity to not only get experience in the exact, specific field in which I want to work, but also to actually make some contribution to the betterment of local public health through nutrition. I’m really proud of my city’s commitment to these issues and to making progressive changes.
But no matter how hard the people in “my” office have worked for the past four years since starting this initiative, there has been no huge turnaround for people’s health. In fact, I think one of the most frustrating things about the obesity epidemic is that change comes so slowly. Only now, after decades of spreading awareness about this problem, are obesity levels in the U.S. possibly starting to plateau. Sustainable progress often seems to necessitate slow change, on the individual and population level. It takes time to change someone’s mind, and even longer to change their habits. I’m worried that even if the food industry can be reigned in, the costs of reforming the American food system to a more sustainable, organic one will deter legislators from getting on board, because it will take years for the healthcare costs to decrease to make up for it.
Even I have to remind myself that every little step in the right direction is something to celebrate, whether for my own wellness or for everyone’s. Take my project for my internship–I’m assessing whether vending machines in public places (city agencies and other city-owned facilities) are complying with nutrition standards set forth by the health department. I feel that some of these standards aren’t strict enough; for example, diet soda is classified as a “healthy” beverage. But then I realize how amazing it is that these standards are in place at all. And as tedious as it seems for me to visit hundreds of these machines just to see if they’re complying with the standards, how would we evaluate the policy’s effectiveness without ensuring that it’s being implemented correctly? When I think of it that way, I’m so grateful for the work that these public health officials are doing and that I get to be a part of it.