November 8, 2009

Less visible people doing important things

Fire fighters and the police are very visible in their jobs.  You may not need their services often.  Last week I learned a lot about the vast numbers of people whose service probably benefits you in every hour of your day.  They are the Environmental Health and Public Health network that looks over so many parts of our society that affect you.  There are 300,000 retail food outlets in California -- every one of which is inspected.  There are 800 food service inspectors in L.a. County alone.  If you get your nails done or ask for help from a dog catcher, they've been there.  Issues with the water supply?  They've been there.

The California Conference of Directors of Environmental Health hosted a two day conference last week "Food Systems and Public Health: Safe, Secure, and Sustainable" that brought together a couple hundred people from local, state, and federal agencies like public health departments, environmental health departments, the CDC, and the USDA.

I had the privilege to give the closing speech.  The conference partcipants have a very challenging role.  They are at the nexus of the myriad policies regulating the food system and the demands from the public.   They are challenged by trying to reasonably apply regulations that may be appropriate for a 10,000 acres factory spinach farm to a 2 acre organic farm.  My message to them was pretty basic --- imagine, just imagine what it would be like if 50% of the population ate enough fruits and vegetables every day instead of 14%.  Families would be healthier, they would save money, we'd need a couple million more acres of farms, and it would be good for the earth if the food was grown in a sustainable way.  The chronic disease burden and obesity, essentially just variations of food borne illnesses health departments worry about, would be reduced perhaps saving some resources for more primary care and prevention.  I told them about all the different ways Kaiser Permanente is trying to improve health through good food.  Simply stated, we are trying to create more work for them.  The more demand we create for healthy foods, the more work they have to do the insure it is safe, accessible for all people, and sustainable for the long term.