Food and Politics

My Notes From the Food Revolution Summit

An Interview with Congressman Tim Ryan

Sane Food Policy: What’s it Going to Take

Congressman Tim Ryan serves as a member of the House Appropriations Committee which controls the expenditures of money by the federal government. He is a champion of many causes including the revitalization of American cities and the improvement of the health and well being of families and children. He has a passion for healthier food and food systems. He has introduced bills to add holistic and alternative medical programs for the treatment of veterans and to teach school children social and emotional skills to better self awareness and to fund better nutrition curricular in medical schools.

John Robbins speaking: I want to thank you for your commitment to creating a healthy food system and healthy supply in this country, you said that after twelve years in the United States Congress you believe that there is nothing on the political agenda that can unite us as a country across the partisan divides like acknowledging the damage our current food system is doing to the health and well being of the health of our people and our nation.

Congressman Ryan speaking: I think there are a lot of issues that are polarizing today but the issue of food, food safety and the overall health and wellness in regard to food is a major issue that both democrats and republicans I know are for and should continue to be for but we haven’t really talked about it in a big way. It’s not seen as one of those big ideas that can really change the country and transform the country I think if we present it as a really big idea that it will resonate with both republicans and democrats. First and foremost it crosses the philosophical divide because I think that everybody believes that we should be providing food to our citizens that would allow them to be healthy, to be self sufficient and have a high energy level for the food we eat. To be their medicine for the food that we eat, to make our kids be able to focus and concentrate in school so they could go out and earn a living and be prepared for the world and not relying on governmental programs and all the rest because they are functioning at a very high level. I think that most republicans will also see and most democrats as well that really if were going to bend the cost curve for the entitlement programs which are the Medicaid program which helps fund health care for our poor in our society and the Medicare program that helps fund the health care for our seniors. Both are being effected by the high rates of disease that we have especially type 2 diabetes where in the next five years half of our country is either going to have diabetes or pre-diabetes. Many of those folks are on the Medicaid program so we can bend the cost curve on the entitlements and not necessarily cut benefits which I think the democrats are for but also bring the cost down which the republicans are for. So by addressing this third way issue I think we can meet the goals of both political parties and hopefully unite the country.

John Robbins speaking: When you mentioned food as medicine I was thinking how Americans today spend a smaller percentage of our income on food than any people in the history of the world and at the same time were spending more on what we call healthcare but we should probably call disease management than any people have ever done. It’s striking to me that in all the heated debate about health care reform one basic fact is rarely mentioned and that is how much we could save, how much we could dramatically bring down the cost of healthcare if we had a healthier diet. The CDC estimates that three quarters of U.S. healthcare spending goes to treat chronic diseases most of which are preventable and linked to the food we eat. If we were to stop over eating and stop eating unhealthy foods and instead eat more foods with higher nutrient densities and cancer protective properties we would have a more affordable system. I’ve wondered why then are the fiscal conservatives in Congress not more supportive of policies that would subsidize healthier food?

Congressman: Well I think that their stuck, I think in many ways they don’t want to listen to the new ideas which is why getting out to the countryside and getting out to these groups that are very active in the food area are critically important to leading this movement. To stimulating an organic movement in which they can then be contacting their members of Congress, their Senator’s, their members of their school board or run for school board or run for state representative or state Senate, be involved in the process of trying to change this. It has to be an organic movement because there’s a lot of density in Washington DC and it’s tough to penetrate and convince those people who are looking at traditional ways of balancing a budget. You know were going to cut benefits were going to cut spending, cut the investments as we make as a country when the reality is we’ve got to make these investments in a new way. If we make the proper investments into healthy foods, sustainable agriculture, building out a new system with our public schools, then all of a sudden your going to see the cost curve will bend over time and were going to have a healthier and more productive society so in my estimation it’s got to happen at the local level.

John Robbins: Well that’s what were trying to support actually, the food revolution network and this summit. When you talk about investments the government makes I’m thinking about the official federal recommendations for the American diet which recommends a diet of fifty percent vegetables and fruits but less than one percent of the farm subsidies today support the research, production or marketing of those foods. Most of these subsidies really almost sixty percent go to corn and other grains that are mostly fed to animals or converted to fuel for cars or more often processed into the kind of junk food that is exactly the kind of food that is causing so much illness and leading to skyrocketing medical costs.

Congressman: You hit the nail on the head, you follow the money that’s something you learn early on in politics that the budgets that you pass are a document that reflect the values of the group or organization that’s passing the budget. Whether it’s a family budget or whatever the case may be or the government. That budget reflects our values and right now we value this cheap highly processed food not recognizing that we can do much better by making healthy food. The fruits and vegetables the kind of stuff that’s being recommended to us to eat and make that much more affordable and accessible to our citizens if we retool the system and shift those subsidies over to farmers. The farmers will grow what they need to grow in order to make the money and if we want more fruits and vegetables lets’ shift those subsidies and align our investments with our values, align our investments with the kind of food that we want.

John Robbins: During WW2 twenty million Americans planted home vegetable gardens they were called victory gardens then and those victory gardens produced forty percent of the produce and vegetables consumed nationally for those years. People dug up their lawns to grow vegetables they planted food crops in their backyards they used vacant lots. Is there anything that can be done today on a policy level to support home vegetable gardens and farmers markets, urban agriculture and community gardens and other ways that help people become more self reliant around food and more connected to the food they eat?

Congressman: There sure are there’s a lot of ideas that are out there and some that were still fooling around with. To figure out the best way to do it you look at these kitchen incubators that are in some communities an expansion of those. More money for the neighborhood stabilization program which is a program we’ve used in Youngstown Ohio and many other cities have used as well to knock down dilapidated homes and clear out. In Youngstown for example went from 160-170,000 people in the fifties and sixties to about 70,000 now but we still have a good number of dilapidated homes that never went anywhere. So federal investments to knock those homes down and then following that up with increasing your green space and increasing your urban gardening by doing raised beds and hoop houses and those kinds of things to extend the growing season in places in the north where we will need some help to address the weather issues. Those kinds of investments can really help I think to start to grow this out and to educate people in how to use community gardens. Another idea is how to shift subsidies so you have a neighborhood where you can have a number of acres where people can come together in some kind of co-op where they would maybe even get a subsidy. If their proving enough food to go to the local hospital or the local school each family in the city may be making 50 or 60,000 dollars a year, maybe less as a family barely living out of poverty. Maybe it could be that if they participate in some growing program each family could make another ten thousand dollars which is a twenty or twenty five percent increase in their income plus their eating good food their making more money. Now there’s a little bit more left for their kids to play baseball, get music lessons or whatever. Then your also reinvesting that money into our poorest neighborhoods so your actually reinvesting back into these neighborhoods that have seen so much of this investment. Now you’ve turned a neighborhood of complete consumption into a neighborhood of production, those are the kind of ideas that were fighting for to help us build out this new food system.

John Robbins: Well those are ideas that are very much worth fighting for many of our inner cities are food deserts where the only food available is pretty much fast food outlets and corner stores, kids growing up in these neighborhoods have very little or no access to healthy food. One of the other speakers in this summit is Will Allen I know your familiar with his work is there a roll that Congress can play in supporting the work that he’s doing?

Congressman: Absolutely I think Will Allen is one of the great social change agents and we will look back decades from now and at what he was able to do in Milwaukee and how much we have learned from his work. I think he’s a real leader and I think yes, I mean it’s the same kind of thing I was just taking about how do you build out this system. You know again you can make money off this stuff too I mean you could start these co-ops in urban areas and you could build out a food system where you could make some money off the deal so it’s not just non profit driven. I think that’s an important point to it’s going to take some seed money and some training and guys like Will are going to have to continue to share their skillset with others. But you ultimately want almost a social entrepreneur to get the investment, even get private capitol to come into these areas to build out a food system. Then sell the food at a reasonable price because it’s local and you don’t have the transportation cost and you don’t have the global commodity trade that sometimes happens that raises prices like we saw with corn in the last year. So keep prices low and that good food gets into the neighborhood but somebody can still make a living off it and maybe even higher a few people. Those are the kind of things that Will has shown us how to do and those are the kinds of thing we need to continue to build out from the government side whether it’s the state or federal government or the USDA. I think the important thing would be to provide the technical support to help somebody get that kind of business off the ground and we have business incubators that help with business software or provide a subsidy for rent so the rents not too expensive. A lot of technical support to build out the supply chain if your in a manufacturing business there are a lot of programs now that do that for manufacturing or more information technologies businesses. So now how can we transfer that to food, I think that if the government makes that a priority not that the government takes over, but makes that a priority to grow that sector of the economy I think it could lead to a lot of positive benefits.

John Robbins: I do to, Corey Booker is a friend of mine, the Senator from New Jersey, and he has also been a speaker in this summit and he hosted the movie Fed Up on Capitol Hill, he is also a strong advocate for a healthier food system. Are there other Senators and U.S. representatives that you see as important allies in a real food revolution?

Congressman: Well I think Cory is one, Chellie Pingree from Maine is one, Debbie Stabenow the Senator in Michigan is one, Sherrod Brown in Ohio is one. There are a handful of members both in the house and the Senate and from the Senate side Tim Walz from Minnesota that are really involved in this and were trying to make as much noise as we possibly can, now again I think this has to be organic. I was at that screening with Senator Booker he’s a great leader and the kind of guy that can really help to get this thing ramped up and so there’s a good group here we just need a little more organized support out in the country side.

John Robbins: Meanwhile the average food item that we eat today in this country travels 1,500 miles from farm to mouth we have become used to, become dependent on long supply chains and these supply chains can easily become vulnerable to disruption in the years to come. Do you think we should have a department of home grown security?

Congressman: Well that’s an interesting idea, I think whether you have a department or not you certainly need the initiatives and the funding to promote that but I like the idea of somehow pull this out and redefine what our ag-policies mean to our security. We have seen a lot with things like baby food, we buy a lot from China that have harmed our health and well being because of the way food is made today a good number of recalls that you see about every week if you follow that kind of thing you know it happens all the time. I love the idea of reframing this and really making it an issue and I think we can do the same with health. We should probably have a department of health and wellness as well as opposed to a health and human services where we really start to focus on well being, wellness and prevention. You know you think of all the time you spend outside of a doctors office if your only going to worry about your health and focus on your health when your in a doctors office your talking about 15 minutes maybe twice a year as opposed to your entire life where you should spend time thinking about your health and wellness. How to prevent disease and how to get the vitamins and minerals that you need from your food and all those kind of things so the idea of pulling that out is a very interesting one.

John Robbins: We currently have an FDA and I often think why do we have a food and drugs unless the food is designed to make us ill so that we need the drugs. Isn’t food important enough to have it’s own agency?

Congressman: Yes it most certainly is I don’t know how much time gets spent on it, you know we have the whole United States Department of Agriculture that rarely talks about food as well. We’ve de-linked the kind of growing process from the food that were actually going to eat because there’s so many steps between the growing of the food and the eating of the food. With all the processing that happens to the point where it’s gotten so disconnected that the stuff that were growing very rarely goes to your diner table. It turns into oils or high fructose corn syrup or all of these kinds of things that get processed so I think that de-linking from the crop to the table really has led to this whole grey area when it comes to agriculture. I think food more and more needs to be front and center and I think it’s a really good point that your making about the relationship between food and drugs and how many drugs and deficiencies and all the rest that we have now because we failed to really focus on our food. To me this is really getting back to the fundamentals this is pretty simple and pretty straightforward. We have a sick country we have high rates of diabetes, high rates of cancer, high rates of high blood pressure, high rates of all of these things ulcers, ADD, right down the line and a lot of these you can trace down to our food. We can continue to dump a ton of money and try to figure out how to put a band aid on some of these things or we can go to the source, the fundamental cause. Recognize it’s our food and put our attention, resources and energy into that and that will prevent all of these other things and that to me is really about getting back to the fundamentals. Were talking about food this isn’t complicated you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure this one out this is pretty straightforward stuff and were going to have to make the investments that are going to help us get this ramped up.

John Robbins: We did and I think part of those investments are investing in our young people so that they will know how to grow and how to prepare and to eat real food. I think if it was our goal to produce a generation of people who have those skills there is certain things that we would do we would see that schools have a vegetable garden, we would see to it that every school would have a kitchen so kids would learn to cook. They wouldn’t be so dependent on fast food franchises to cook their food for them and we’d see to it that every school would have a salad bar in the school lunchroom where they sold fresh vegetables and fruits that the kids grew themselves in the school garden. To me these kinds of things are basic common sense and yet very often today we have fast food restaurants in schools operating actually in schools.

Congressman: Yes who would have thought you talk about looking back 10, 15, 20 years from now to think we did this to our kids whether it was the fast food and the pop and the sodas and the sugary drinks. Their in the schools the kind of things were feeding to our kids even for some instances for breakfast that are not preparing them to learn that really needs to be the focus. What can we feed our kids that is going to increase their ability to focus and concentrate, to be creative, to be innovative, to mobilize their attention span so that they can really have a discipline mind. That they can have a high energy level and be able to sustain it throughout the day so that their not lethargic and their minds not cloudy, what foods do we have to give them in order to be sharp. I think in the United States of America today we shouldn’t say we just want to give them some calories so they can have something in their belly we can do better than that because a lot of times it’s something in their belly that makes it harder for them to learn. When you go to the classroom and they don’t have a high energy level their lethargic they can’t concentrate the next thing you know we do, we get them on attention deficit medication we start medicating these kids and were medicating them and their brains aren’t fully developed yet. The default position is ok how do we keep them under control, even the kids that have the hyperactivity a lot of that stuff is diet related as well and we even do it in our house. We let the kids have a snack or an occasional coke a cola or something and they start bouncing off the walls and we get mad and we, because their acting up, you know you just gave then 10 tbsps. of sugar what did you expect them to act like. We get those reminders of why we try not to give it to them as much as we possibly can but to think of these kids and that it’s their staple, that’s their daily diet, we are not doing them any favors. This becomes a money issue they make money off of these vending machines, these companies that come in and they will build the scoreboard or build something in the school as long as you allow the vending machines in. I get it, I get why it happens but are we going to be committed enough as citizens to say we would rather pay to make sure those things don’t go into the schools. How do we build alliances with the local farmers so that we can get fresh fruits and vegetables in these schools and your also creating a market for the local farmer. These are the kinds of things that I think are transformational for our school district and it helps the local farmer, it increases the ability and the productivity of the young kids in the schools. Here we go were off and running to create young students and invest in young students and prepare them for a very competitive world that their going to go in and that their going to know everything they need to do to be successful.

John Robbins: If the ideas and programs that you advocate and priorities were to become national policy I would stand up and cheer and we would be headed in a far better direction. It seems to me reforming the food system in the direction that your pointing to will ultimately depend on a congress that for decades has been beholden to agribusiness. You are currently serving your sixth term in congress representing Ohio’s 13th congressional district, you have now written a book titled “The Real Food Revolution”. As a member of congress and also as a concerned citizen of this country and of our planet what gives you hope today?

Congressman: I draw a lot of inspiration from the men and women that are in the field doing the work and to see so many that are just plugging away at an urban ag non profit or community garden somewhere or working real hard to teach young kids about food. Whether it’s in the school or an after school program or summer school program there’s so many people out there even with what Michele Obama is doing now just raising this issue to the greatest extent she can. Leading to how we can have this level of discussions that’s really where I’m getting my inspirations the fact that I’m on here trying to spread the word about it. The people that I see when I go around and talk about my book and they ask me questions about it and to see that kind of support that’s to me where I get a lot of motivation and inspiration.
Thank you it’s been terrific, we have a lot of work to do and I think that it’s going to start more with the folks that are hearing us talking right now than it is necessarily with me or someone else in Washington. I feel my job is to get people energized about what we can do together but we need those pockets happening, pushing, advocating getting involved in the political process everyday wherever they are. Talking to congress and being engaged in the political system even though it sometimes seems helpless. They need to know that there are groups of people that are out there pushing and at some point were going to reach a tipping point and it’s going to be because all of those people were resilient and embraced the grind that it’s going to take to be able to get this thing done.

Congressman Ryan web page


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M.Scherker medical researcher