As a RD mastering in Food Policy and Applied Nutrition, I see now more then ever as the time for RD’s to fully embrace the world of policy as an agent for change. A short trip down memory lane shows us the causal story of how our food system and societal health got where it is today, all through policy. As the ‘food and nutrition professionals,’ it is imperative that dietitians understand how food is grown, why certain foods are grown, and how these policies are contributing to the very disease we are attempting to rebuke.
In 1973, Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, encouraged farmers to "get big or get out," as he urged farmers to plant commodity crops like corn "from fencerow to fencerow." These policy shifts coincided with the rise of major agribusiness corporations, and the declining financial stability of the small family farm. Evidence shows that while the present capital and technology-intensive farming systems are productive and able to produce cheap food, they also bring a variety of economic, environmental, and social problems.
Industrial farms are subsidized by commodity payments (your tax money) and are contributing to environmental degradation through: bi-cropping (corn and soy), heavy use of pesticides, inefficient use of increasingly scarce water, depletion and erosion of soil, difficulty recycling nutrients and destruction of biodiversity. Recent research has also shown a decrease in nutrient values in fruits and vegetables over the last 30 years. This alone is great reason for RD’s to be the leading soil advocates.
What is infuriating is that the food that is being subsidized and grown throughout the Midwest is not really food at all, in that it is not fit for human consumption. It is an input and it must be processed, which leads us another problem: processed food. Almost every product you find in the center aisles of the grocery store is made from corn and soy. From steaks to chicken nuggets, condiments, juices, frozen entrees, pastries, etc., are ultimately derived from corn, either as high fructose corn syrup or from the corn-based animal feed that is being fed to animals. The animals confined to the industrial food system are also not supposed to eat this corn. Cows are ruminant animals and are suppose to eat grass. This is like trying to make a patient with Celiac’s Disease eat a diet of wheat gluten. The cows, like the patient would, get sick with a condition called acidosis which causes one of their four stomachs to inflate, ultimately causing suffocation. To combat this problem, the industrialized food system provides animals living in CAFO’s (Confined Animal Feeding Operations) with a low dose of antibiotics. Presently, 80% of the antibiotics in the US are used non-therapeutically in animals being grown for consumption.
Those working in the community and clinical dietetics and with at-risk populations see the ramifications of these policies every day. The American people, especially low-income populations, are sick. Both corn-fed beef and high-fructose corn syrup contribute to the obesity epidemic in the United States. Those working on obesity know that behavior change alone is not working. Patients are stricken by a federal policy that makes cheap food possible. While American’s spend a smaller fraction of their budget (about 11%) on food compared to any other industrialized nation, the cheap food is catching up to us on the other end: our health care costs, or what I call, “sick care.” Another issue for those working in the area of hunger and food security is our dependency on petroleum inputs to grow food.
With a new administration and a new secretary of agriculture, now is a great time for RD’s to join in the political process that is entrenched in our food. In order for your representatives to begin to change these archaic policies, they must first know that there is political will. Dietitian’s can be the story-tellers and the educators for their policy makers, communities and clients. As the nation's food and nutrition experts, registered dietitians are committed to improving the health of their patients and community. Registered Dietitian Day commemorates the dedication of RDs as advocates for advancing the nutritional status of Americans and people around the world. There is no better place to an RD to start, then in policy.
What could an RD do to learn more?
- Join one of American Dietetic Association(ADA)’s fastest growing Dietetic Practice Groups: Hunger and Environmental Nutrition (HEN)
- Read my personal blog Epicurean Ideal
- Learn about the Farm Bill and how RD’s can help make it a “Food Bill"
- Join a food policy council in your community
- Participate in the 2009 Child Nutrition Reauthorization legislation
- Watch the Food Lobby Goes to School (about school lunch and industry lobbyists)
- Learn about the American Dietetic Association’s priority areas and encourage them to make an ecological, preventative sustainable approach to food systems and nutrition
- Check out Angie Tagtow's “Good Food Guide for RD's”
- Watch the movie King Corn
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