- Author: Rose Hayden-Smith
This morning found me at the National Food Policy Conference. The keynote speaker was Kathleen Sebelius, former governor of Kansas, and now serving in the Obama administration as Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
In her brief tenure, Sebelius has been busy framing a response to H1N1 influenza, and dealing with a host of food system issues for the new administration, an administration that is focusing seriously on food safety.
She got right to the point about childhood obesity. Sharing government statistics that medical treatment for all cancers in the U.S. tops $93 billion each year, she pointed out that the medical costs associated with treating obesity DOUBLE that, exceeding $186 billion per year. She indicated that chronic diseases cause 70% of deaths in America, and that their treatment represents 75% of all health care costs. She attributed much of America’s battle with obesity to poor childhood nutrition. Her conclusion? There will be huge benefits to both human health and the economy by addressing both childhood obesity and food safety.
Sebelius promised to “focus relentlessly on prevention,” viewing it as a “great investment.” There will be a national initiative, and American Recovery and Investment funds to support prevention efforts.
Sebelius is working closely on this effort with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. They served as governors together (Sebelius in Kansas, Vilsack in Iowa). The idea that DHHS and USDA will be working closely together – along with the Department of Education – is somewhat novel. This administration is emphasizing inter- and intra-agency cooperation to a degree seldom seen previously.
Food safety is a major area of focus for Sebelius. The national food safety workgroup she sits on has identified three core principles:
- Prioritizing food safety, not in response to specific crises, but to anticipate and prevent crises from occurring;
- Building partnerships and casting a wider net, sharing best practices across the nation, and building partnerships across agencies. Specifically, Secretary Sebelius spoke of the DHHS partnering with USDA on food safety, and with the Department of Education playing a role in childhood nutrition education.
- Being proactive.
Secretary Sebelius stated that along with the USDA, the DHHS strongly supports the pending WIC and Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization and the pending Senate food safety bill.
Like yesterday, imports were referenced in terms of food safety. Per Sebelius, 20% of food is imported, and more than 1/3 of produce and ¾ of seafood are imported. She spoke of the need to develop a 21st century food policy that emphasizes safety.
The morning’s big announcement was the launching of www.foodsafety.gov This website represents a significant effort to better serve American consumers by serving as a clearinghouse for all food safety issues. Recall and safety information is provided here, and you may sign up for email updates and feeds. There is a widget that enables individuals and agencies to link the website to their own sites. Mobile phone alerts regarding important food safety information will soon be available.
I visited the site today, and noted something interesting: the collaboration. This site is a joint effort between the White House, the USDA, the Centers for Disease Control, the FDA, DHHS, National Institutes of Health, and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Services Division. This site is truly a valuable resource, and I urge you to visit it.
Sebelius noted that the “highest mission of any government is keeping its citizens safe.” The government’s new food safety website will help accomplish this.
Around lunchtime, I went with four colleagues over to the USDA for a meeting about the People’s Garden Initiative. While walking by the garden – which looks very different from when I saw it in March, a scant five weeks after it was planted – I saw Bob Snieckus. Bob is a landscape designer with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which is one of seventeen USDA agencies. I met Bob last March at the People’s Garden Partnership Forum, when he shared design plans. Today, Bob was working in the garden on his lunch hour, doing some volunteer work to perfect what already looked wonderful in preparation for the USDA’s Harvest BBQ, an event for members of Congress that was being held tonight, before the President’s address on health care.
Our group of gardening advocates had a wonderful and productive meeting with USDA staff about national gardening efforts and the USDA’s work in this area. I’ll post tomorrow what I learned about the green and sustainable efforts being undertaken by the USDA. The great work being done there deserves its own blog posting!
- Breakfast meeting with the Executive Director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition to learn more about federal ag policy and legislation, including the Farm Bill.
- Meeting with Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of the USDA (gardening is one of three agenda items).
- Visit to the White House Garden. We have learned we will also be given a tour of the kitchen. New restrictions prevent us from taking any bags or cameras, but we believe that the White House staff will provide us with some pictures of our visit.
- Evening reception to present policy ideas to press and policy makers. Bet you can guess what my policy idea is….yes, a national gardening initiative like the WWI and WWII Victory Garden campaigns!
Random observations: High seventies today, scattered sprinkles. Warm and humid, but absolutely lovely this evening. We are staying at an historic hotel off of DuPont Circle, with a tiny lobby. As we crowded into the lobby this evening, preparing to walk to dinner, Madeline Albright and Tom Daschle came through the door, and headed up the flight of narrow stairs for a meeting. We ate dinner tonight at a restaurant called Founding Farmers. Founding Farmers is an unusual restaurant: it is owned by a collective of family farmers who are committed to serving sustainable food in a sustainable environment (the restaurant is LEEDS certified). The food was excellent, reflecting seasonal availability and a perfect mix of classic American dishes (cornbread and fried green tomatoes were appetizers we shared) and more eclectic offerings. The food is reasonably priced. I had a wonderful grilled cheese sandwich, tomato soup, and coffee. Six of us shared an enormous slice of red velvet cake and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
My tablemates were Jim and Rebecca Goodman, Wisconsin dairy farmers; Lisa Kivirist, organic farmer/eco-preneur/writer/innkeeper from Wisconsin; Abigail Rogosheske, Institute of Ag and Trade Policy, Minnesota; Zoe Bradbury, young farmer/writer from Langlois, Oregon (and her husband, Danny, who is from Ventura!); and Roger Doiron, gardening hero and founder of Kitchen Gardeners International. Roger’s influence has made the White House visit possible. Thanks, Roger!
- Author: Rose Hayden-Smith
I was up early this morning, eating a breakfast with Wisconsin dairy farmer Jim Goodman, a national advocate for small organic family farms. Each time I talk to him, I learn more about the challenges facing small family farm operators in the U.S.
Immediately after breakfast, I walked to the 32nd annual National Food Policy Conference, which is being presented by the Consumer Federation of America and the Grocery Manufacturers Association. This year’s theme is “Assuring a Safe and Nutritious Food Supply: On the Threshold of a New Era in Food Policy.” The conference was peopled by a large and diverse group of attendees.
The first panel discussion centered around the Food and Drug Administration’s “modernization” legislation; it was moderated by Gardiner Harris, a science reporter with the New York Times. Much of the discussion focused on HR 2479, the proposed Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009. The discussion was heated, but civil, with one panelist arguing that the legislation was too narrow and would penalize smaller farm operators because of the traceability requirements. One of the panelists was from Pew Research, which just today released a poll that indicates that American consumers are much less confident about the quality and safety of food than they have been previously. Concern about the safety of imported food is astoundingly high. Despite differences about the HR 2479 legislation, there was consensus on some fundamental principles, including focusing on preventing the outbreak of food borne illness. How to accomplish this (increased inspections, etc.)? Not so much agreement. There was also agreement that the private verification agreements that some major retailers require of their food vendors have developed because of a vacuum at the federal level. Change is clearly needed. I emerged with pages of notes about this legislation and a much clearer understanding of what is being proposed, and what the needs are in this area.
The second panel discussion focused on the WIC and Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization. This legislation, which requires congressional reauthorization every five years, is currently under review. This is big legislation, with far-reaching impacts. Currently one in nine Americans is receiving USDA food benefits…and more than half of those are children. Millions of American children participate in federal school lunch programs at more than 100,000 schools, per Cindy Long of the USDA. More than 14,000 comments about the reauthorization were received by the USDA (I sent a multi-page comment letter in myself). There is broad-based consensus on what needs to occur:
- Increase access and participation in the school lunch program, including summer feeding programs;
- Improve the nutritional quality of the food in school lunch programs; and
- Simplify program administration.
There were some nuances, however. Some advocates favor improving the nutritional quality of foods throughout the campus, not just improving what’s served in the cafeteria. This makes sense: it’s estimated that 30-50% of the calories children consume (on school days) are consumed at school. One of the panelists spoke about how some foods that were forbidden in the cafeteria could still be sold elsewhere on school campuses. Her argument: there needs to be a stronger link to overall school wellness policies that incorporate good nutrition and physical activity. However, due to the focus on health care reform in Washington, DC, not enough time and attention is going to the reauthorization.
The obvious question came up: why isn’t childhood nutrition considered as part of an overall health reform effort? Derek Miller, who is a senior staff member for the Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry for the U.S. Senate, views it as an “integral component of broader health care reform efforts.” He also said that if we are to slow childhood obesity, we need “multi-sectoral” approaches. (All the speakers I heard today were excellent; however, I found Miller’s comments throughout the day particularly compelling and resonant).
There was also discussion of soon-to-be released childhood nutritional recommendations from the Institute of Medicine (IOM), which will be provided to the USDA, and will feed into the 2009 reauthorization. The IOM recommendations, I learned from Dr. Eduardo Sanchez, an IATP Fellow, are key. They will likely suggest new meal patterns that will impact school lunches (perhaps suggesting more food choices that are low fat, whole grain, and more fruits and vegetables).
All panelists noted that the health care reform issue is slowing other legislative agendas. Our evening meeting with Ed Cooney and friends at the Congressional Hunger Center confirmed this. Ed and others who are working on the reauthorization expressed a sense of urgency around this legislation, and I agree.
At lunch, Deputy Agricultural Secretary Kathleen Merrigan spoke to us. She spoke about the importance of childhood nutrition and school lunch programs, sharing with us that the current administration has a goal of ending childhood hunger by 2015. Merrigan also talked about farmland preservation/conservation, and the challenges facing dairy farmers (she noted her recent visit to California, and how the dairy farmers they met with wore red shirts to reference the deficits they are running). She shared the USDA’s concern with repopulating the nation with farmers (the average age of the American farmer is 57). I liked hearing about the USDA’s commitment to encouraging young people to begin farming, but I’d like to see some more concrete ideas, programs and resources addressing this need. We aren’t doing nearly enough to teach youth about agriculture, nor are we providing enough resources to beginning farmers.
A new census of agriculture has recently been released, and is shows in starker detail what we already know are trends. The smallest of small farms are thriving, and many are women-led. Very large farms are thriving. But there is a “disappearing middle” that ought to concern us all.
I met dozens of people today, from different parts of the country, from different professions. All share a concern about food systems and agriculture. About childhood nutrition. It’s clear that all these things are linked.
It’s been an eighteen hour day, and it’s time to post this and sign off.
On Wednesday’s schedule:
- Breakfast (in 7 hours!) with garden advocates (as we prepare for our visit to the USDA);
- Listening to Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius speak at 9:00 a.m.;
- Meeting with key USDA staff about a national gardening initiative;
- Touring the People’s Garden at the USDA (I’m looking forward to seeing the progress made since my last visit in March and hope to borrow a baggie full of compost to bring home to share);
- Hoping to find a TV to see the President’s address (hotel is historic and doesn't have TVs, but DOES have wireless); and
- Sharing a dinner with a couple dozen of the nation’s pre-eminent authorities on food systems at the Founding Farmers restaurant.
Random observations: Weather here is mid-seventies, overcast, some occasional sprinkles. Sticky, but great walking weather. While we were waiting for the elevator to go downstairs to the Congressional Hunger Center this evening, Newt Gingrich came around the corner and was only about ten feet away from us. Turns out Fox News is in the same building.