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December 10, 2017
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July 13, 2016

On these midsummer mornings, birdsong often wakes me a little after 4:30. I’d be absolutely furious if I were awakened by a neighbor’s car siren or chain saw at such an early hour, but somehow the happy twittering of birds in the early sunrise hour triggers for me a little interval of quiet reflection before the day begins. And occasionally, something I’ve heard or read comes back to me with fresh significance as I mull it over.

It was in this mood that I awoke the other day thinking about an article that I had read a few weeks earlier. The gist of the piece, headlined “Food Deserts Aren’t the Problem,” was that recent efforts aimed at providing access to fresh fruits and vegetables in low-income neighborhoods are a waste of public resources since these programs had not achieved a statistically measurable improvement in health outcomes for the target populations. I was irritated by what I saw as the author’s straw-man arguments—for example, did anyone really expect that the mere presence of a neighborhood grocery store could reduce the area’s obesity rate in the space of only four years? And while the article cited a number of studies that sounded valid, it conflated and politicized its conclusions, employing phrases like “teaching former inmates about fennel” in a way that trivialized healthy food initiatives as an elitist, simplistic substitute for efforts directed at the deeper issues of poverty and public health, rather than one important strategy among many.

As I recalled this string of thoughts the other morning, what crystallized for me was our culture’s preoccupation with the magic bullet, the simple single solution. I sometimes fear that we are so biased toward this way of thinking that we are losing our ability to address or even fully identify complex problems. Our efforts to improve public health are going to have to focus on a constellation of issues that are economic, political, environmental and cultural. They includes poverty, the minimum wage, underemployment, education, stress, mental health, addiction, access to health care, chemical farming, processed foods, industrial pollution of air and water, environmental exposure in the built environmen at home and at work, and the health impacts like mold and vector-borne illnesses related to climate change. We need a holistic approach that examines the whole interrelated system in which we live.