Not on the plate: Food policy in the 2016 elections

Curious where our presidential candidates stand on food policy? Your best bet is to read this Donald Trump “Nutrition Facts” t-shirt that boasts a 100% daily value of “Defeat ISIS,” “Build the wall,” and “Protect the 2nd Amendment.”


51yvlV4jiRLSadly, the shirt symbolizes the lack of actual conversation from either party’s frontrunner about food, recently deemed the “most single important issue not on the table” by scientist and public voice Dariush Mozaffarian.  Considering the industry’s massive imact on public health, the environment, and economy, that needs to change — and soon.

America’s current public health crisis can be summed up in an age-old adage: we are what we eat.  With the rapid rise of obesity — two-thirds of American adults are obese or overweight — and a sharp increase in type two diabetes, it isn’t surprising that Americans aren’t getting enough nutrients in their diets. The average American consumes only 40% of the recommended daily fruit intake, and only 64% of the guidelines’ recommended vegetable intake. Meanwhile, “ultra processed” foods bursting with artificial flavors, preservatives, and sugar make up more than half of all calories consumed by Americans .

The reason for America’s current situation is more complex than simply what we eat; it’s why we’re eating it. This distinction importantly recognizes the disconnect between what the USDA tells Americans to consume, and where federal food interests actually lie. Today, if you look at the USDA recommended plate, half of which contains fruits and vegetables, only 1% of that plate is subsidized by the US government. Corn and other grains receive 61% of federal subsidies, and are converted into processed ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, or into feed for our highly-industrialized meat industry.

What began as a strategy to lower food prices in the 1970s by subsidizing cheap commodity crops like soy and corn instead of produce has created the ultra-processed world of industrialized food, where Americans spend a smaller percentage of their earnings on food than ever before, and the American government spends more on healthcare than any other nation.

It’s no wonder that the cost of healthcare — a topic frequently discussed by both political platforms — has soared to $3 trillion dollars, up 5.3% in the last year. In 2015, healthcare was the second largest federal spending category, accounting for over a quarter of total spending. Diet affects cancer, stroke, diabetes, and heart disease–four of the top ten leading causes of death. Mozaffarian estimates that the health cost of the primary diet-related diseases combined is at least $1 trillion dollars.

The rapid rise of processed food also affects the environment. For a single calorie of beef, 55 calories of fossil fuel must be expended.  Nearly 20 percent of the U.S.’s carbon dioxide emissions come from the food system. Earlier this year, an investigation revealed that Tyson Foods, Inc, one of the nation’s top processed meat companies, released 104 million pounds of pollution to surface waters between 2010-2014, or almost 7 times the amount  released by Exxon.

Concerns seem endless– from food inequality and unethical food marketing to irresponsible pesticide use and global warming. In his widely-cited piece “Food Movement, Rising,” journalist Michael Pollen characterized the many industrial issues related to food policy as a “big lumpy tent” of various advocates. Farmers, scientists, sociologists, and citizens from all walks of life want reform. The question is: does our future president agree?

Recognition of these issues, despite being extremely political in nature, have yet to be served up by the presidential candidate, or the mediators and media outlets that interview them. So far, the only nutrition-related question Hilary Clinton has received was from a reporter asking “What’s the calorie count?” in her ice cream– a story that was covered by literally dozens of news sites and channels, including Yahoo, Huffington Post, and ABC News.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s food-related buzz centers around his decision to quit his Oreo habit because they’re employing Mexican manufacturers. (In the past, he’s even appeared in this commercial for the company’s double stuffed cookie). Apparently, questions about candidate’s personal diets have superseded conversation about one of the economy’s largest industries and most America’s most pressing health issue.

To be fair, we can’t expect Trump or Clinton to answer questions that aren’t being asked in the first place. To solve this problem, several large advocacy organizations, including Food Policy Action (FPA), the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the HEAL food alliance created an online petition called “Plate of the Union,” last October, to the future president.

Claire Benjamin Dimattina, Executive Director of Food Policy Action (FPA) told Food Tank, an industry reform advocacy website: “Our food system is broken and we see the results of that across the country. We need the candidates for President to acknowledge the problem and make a commitment to solving that issue.”

The petition expresses concern that “current food policies prioritize corporate interests at the expensive of our health, the environment, and working families,” and calls for equality, accountability and sustainability. When the initiative launched, its goal was to bring these introduce these issues into the political dialogue during the next 12 months of campaign season. Today, 8 months have passed, and none of the leading candidates addressed food policy in a debate or campaign speech.

If Pollan was correct back in 2010 that a food movement was “rising,” issues like obesity, agricultural subsidies, and food equity should be topics in which every candidate is well versed — just like issues related to gun policy or tax reform. So, why aren’t they?

It isn’t because of a lack of public interest. In fact, Pollen predicted America’s surge of health-conscious trends with remarkable accuracy. Culturally, we see it every day as more “farm-to-table” restaurants open, and manufacturers steadily change their ingredients and packaging to address consumer concerns. Today, nearly 88% of consumers report that they’re willing to spend more for healthier foods.

The release of documentaries like “Fed Up,” (2014) “Hungry for Change,” (2012) and “Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead” (2010) have used cultural influence to raise public awareness. First Lady Michelle Obama continues to combat America’s unhealthy habits, addressed the National Grocer’s Association and recently announced the first update to nutrition labels in over twenty years.

We know that Americans want better food policy. Researchers with “Plate of the Union” discovered that more than half of Americans want policy that addresses food inequality. An overwhelming 81% of Americans have concerns that with the way our government subsidizes agricultures. Over 75% of Americans surveyed, from both political parties, favor incentives for sustainable farming.

Davina Khanna, Director of the HEAL Food Alliance, said “We see how the market has changed when it comes to grocery shopping and eating healthy in our country. We see more farmers’ markets growing in popularity and parents looking to provide the best food for their kids, but we need our policies and Congress to catch up with the public.”

Through our personal platforms and petitions like “Plate of the Union,” we need to bring real food issues to the table. (And they aren’t the calories in Clinton’s ice cream or Donald Trump’s complicated relationship with Oreos.) It’s time to address America’s excessive production and consumption of processed foods and poor industry standards that hurt our health, wallets, and environment.

If we don’t, faux “Nutrition Facts” served up on a cotton t-shirt might be the closest we’ll get.


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