National Consumers League

Food policy 101: A three-part series | Part: What makes a food product “pro-consumer”?

Haley SwartzYou walk into your favorite grocery store, proceeding down each aisle with your shopping list in hand. Can you imagine a world in which the cereal aisle is in conversation with you, instead of yelling at you, the way it seems to these days? Where the bright colors and endless rows of loudly-labeled boxes calm, not overwhelm you? Would that make you feel more confident in your granola of choice?

Choice and information are the two most desired qualities in any given consumer product. Food is no exception. But our supermarket anxieties have real consequences on our everyday interactions with food, or what is known as our surrounding food environment. Over the last two decades, much of the American food environment is marked by choice overload – where the “tyranny of too much” leads to confusion and ultimately, indecision. This is particularly true among socially and economically disadvantaged groups, which include communities of color and other minorities. Food justice organizations fight on behalf of these communities, which have historically lacked labor rights, access to nutrition education, and healthy food options.

Today, consumers have an unprecedented level of choice, and with it, information—tons of it. Servings per box, grams per day, % daily value. Not to mention claims of a food’s health-promoting properties (“improves heart health,” “energy booster,” and the infamous “natural”). Of course, consumer access to information is something advocates like NCL have been fighting for for more than a century. But between marketing claims and nutrition information, how can consumers avoid being overwhelmed and make decisions confidently?

Food justice: Balancing information and choice

The most successful policy proposals to promote food justice have taken root at the local and city levels. But as it stands, the food policy community as a whole strikes a balance between choice and information that is shaky at best. We seem to believe that more is always better – we fight for more choices in our brands, groceries, and restaurants and more information on a package, label, and the web. As communities of color continue to fight for equality in both food access and choice, is more always the goal? If it’s not, what would be just enough? How do we work to protect and promote all consumers, all while recognizing and respecting our differences?

So far none of us has uncovered all the answers to these questions. But we do know that we must work together to ensure information is both adequate and accurate. The food justice movement won’t be won until anyone – any consumer, despite the vast array of food environments nationwide – can pick up a bag of granola and say, with confidence, “This. This one."