When astronaut Alan Shepard was asked what he thought about as he sat atop a rocket about to be the first American blasted into space, he replied "the fact that every part of this ship was built by the low bidder." Food may not be as challenging as rocket science, but it is actually less understood and has a greater influence on your long-term health than any other single factor within your control.
So the next time you or someone you care about is about to consume a meal that has been outsourced to someone else, you might want to think about who prepared it and consider their motivations.
Even if you are not at risk of obesity (which is skyrocketing and the American Medical Association recently classified as a disease), diet is a major factor in virtually every form of chronic disease (diabetes, heart disease, stroke, arthritis and cancer), many of which are starting to afflict individuals of younger and younger ages. Pause and consider this for a minute: by the time today's infants are adults, the CDC predicts that one in every three people will have diabetes. It is not hyperbolic to believe that the associated health care costs and lost productivity could be a greater threat to our economic and national security than terrorism.
Fortunately for astronaut Alan Shepard and the U.S. space program, NASA was not selecting contractors solely based on cost and American businesses rose to the occasion. But, sadly, many school systems, corporations, hospitals and other institutions treat food service simply as another facilities and operations cost, which makes it a common item to outsource to the low-cost provider. And, when you are dealing with a commodity such as food, you typically get what you pay for.
And paying, we are. The estimated costs associated with health care, insurance, workers compensation, lost productivity and absenteeism due to obesity and other chronic conditions have risen to more than $153 billion. Medical expenses for obese employees are 42 percent higher, and according to the National Council on Compensation Insurance, "[an insurance] claim with an obese diagnosis can be 30 to 60 times more expensive than a comparable claim incurred by a non-obese person."
So there really is no "free lunch." Choices made on the basis of saving money today can have dramatic repercussions in the future. And we have ignored this at our peril.
Lest you think this much ado about nothing, the three largest contract food service companies alone serve a mind-boggling 50 million people every day, and the largest multinational served around 4 billion meals last year. In other words, this is big business.
I have had the pleasure of getting to know a lot of the chefs and other professionals in the contract food service industry that prepare so many of the meals in the cafeterias of schools, hospitals, corporations, government facilities and other public venues, and I am happy to say that the vast majority want to serve freshly prepared, wholesome, healthy and sustainable food. Unfortunately, as George Bernard Shaw once said, "virtue is insufficient temptation." For better and for worse, economic factors typically drive menu and food choices.
So what do we do? The answer is actually quite simple: we make serving healthful and sustainable food in the economic self-interest of the companies preparing the food. And how do we do that? Just follow the golden rule: he (and increasingly she) who has the gold makes the rules.
More and more consumers and businesses (and other institutions such as schools and hospitals that utilize business-like practices) are starting to wake-up to the shortsightedness of choosing foods purely based on price. And this is in everyone's interest. Reducing the rates of obesity and other preventable chronic conditions among students and employees can have significant impact on healthcare and payroll costs. In fact, when all the costs such as health care, loss of productivity and cost of replacement are taken into consideration, providing students, patients and employees with healthful and sustainable food offers a very attractive return on investment.
And the food service industry is responding by increasingly sourcing sustainably and preparing healthfully — our free-market system is actually quite efficient. These companies and their clients recognize the value in taking a leadership role in favor of higher quality, more nutritious food and beverages. Another reason for optimism is that food service is increasingly becoming a competitive differentiation for a growing number of schools and employers when it comes to recruiting the best and the brightest, who are often the same individuals that value the longer-term implications of the food and beverages they consume.
Business is the most powerful force on the planet. If we make our food choices based on total cost, and not simply lowest cost, business will respond and give us exactly what we want. After all, it is probably less complicated than getting a man on the moon!
Lawrence Williams is a former executive with SpaceX and is currently the president of the United States Healthful Food Council, a non-profit, non-governmental organization dedicated to fighting obesity, diabetes and other food related diseases.