September should be an important feeding month. For too long we have struggled and failed to curb food and nutritional insecurity, reduce rising rates of obesity and reduce the prevalence of diet-related chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and coronary artery disease.
This issue is very real to many of us, but especially to me.
As a cardiac surgeon for nearly 12 years, I operated on people’s hearts five days a week, palpating and face to face with fatty, calcified and hardened coronary artery disease caused largely due to poor nutrition. I’ve seen firsthand how many of us, despite growing up hearing “you are what you eat,” fail to consume nutritious foods that are fundamental to promote health and wellbeing. We know better.
Our diet – or lack thereof – has thwarted the health and well-being of our country. And it costs many Americans their lives and their savings. It’s time we acted on what experts in science, clinical medicine and public health have long understood: our country must prioritize better nutrition policies.
Creating a national strategy
During my 12 years in the US Senate, I saw the importance of smart, informed policies to drive change nationwide, especially in the food and food room. I am hopeful that next week we can begin developing similarly impactful nutrition policies at the White House conference on hunger, nutrition and health – the first such conference in more than 50 years. This is a great opportunity for leaders, policy makers and stakeholders to radically improve the health and well-being of our nation.
Historically, efforts to combat our nation’s food challenges have focused on making sure every American has enough to eat. And we should be extremely proud of the remarkable success our country has had since the last White House conference on hunger in 1969. But now we are faced with an entirely different set of crises that go beyond just reducing hunger.
The biggest food challenges right now are bad nutrition, bad nutrition and bad food choices. Our struggles in each of these areas are destroying the health of most Americans, pushing many of our health outcomes in the wrong direction and putting an unbearable strain on our health care system.
The numbers don’t lie. Poor nutrition makes us sick and leads to rising healthcare costs. More than 300,000 . every year deaths and more than 80,000 new cases of cancer attributed to poor nutrition. In addition, the health care cost food-related chronic diseases are estimated at more than $604 billion a year, with the broader health impacts of our food system costing Americans more than $1 trillion. For a country that spends 19.7% of its GDP – almost $1 in 5 – on health care, this is inefficient, wasteful and unacceptable.
In many cases, these downward trends are only getting worse. The good news, however, is that this is fixable. But it takes a new bold policy, new investment in science and a new concerted alignment of political will and private sector action.
Informing the White House Conference
All summer I co-chaired a task force which, in preparation for the forthcoming conference, an impartial Report with 30 specific recommendations. Our multi-sector, bipartisan, 26-member group was convened by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Food Systems for the Future, the Gerald J. and Dorothy R. Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, and World Central Kitchen.
The 30 actionable recommendations are formulated based on substantive suggestions and insights from various domains, such as federal nutrition programs, public health and nutrition education, health care, science and research, business and innovation, and federal coordination. We focused on social benefits and cost savings, taking both the private sector perspective and people with past experience into account. But diet and science led the way.
Although each of the recommendations important, there are two that I think are particularly noteworthy: emphasizing “food is medicine” and cultivating a national nutritional strategy.
Faster access to “food is medicine” services to prevent and treat nutrition-related conditions: Health and well-being are closely linked to the food we eat. And as a nation, we eat badly. Just as food contributes to sickness and disease, it also has the power to heal. Hospital systems, health plans and practitioners should all be: straight away involved in food interventions. And rational, science-based policies should follow.
For example, Medicare and Medicaid should expand reimbursement for medically tailored meals that have been shown to improve nutrition-related outcomes and promote health. And private sector entities also play an important role. An example is: Meals which already delivers more than 65 million medically tailored meals across the country each year – most of them to vulnerable populations. With the right government policies working hand in hand with the private sector, we can accelerate much-needed change at scale, promote health and lower costs.
Create a new, national nutrition science strategy to improve coordination and investment in federal nutrition research focused on prevention and treatment of diet-related programs: We need better nutritional research and data. Robust data and science-based science are fundamental to developing the right policies and programs. Our report found that nutrition-oriented research is currently funded by more than 10 different government agencies with no coordination or eye for synergy.
To develop good coordination for better research and better impact, more upfront investment will be needed. Bee Feed the science, an organization co-founded by Dr. Jerome Adams, Thomas Grumbly, Jerold Mande, and me, we specifically recommend increasing federal support for nutritional research by $2 billion annually at multiple agencies, including the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. This increase will allow for better surveillance, inter-agency coordination and research and data on higher quality food.
Accelerating “food is medicine” and creating a nationwide nutrition strategy will pave the way for strong policies and programs. These two recommendations are critical to linking nutrition to health and healthcare and cultivating a culture of well-being.
Recommendations from Nourish Science
we settled Feed the science to help solve our country’s food and nutrition crises, cultivate a healthier population while eliminating health disparities. The organization is orchestrated around the vision of ensuring that every child reaches the age of 18 at a healthy weight. Here are three additional ways we’re proposing the White House to take action:
- Supporting both the Food and Drug Administration and the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the United States Department of Agriculture regulation possibilities to reduce the risk of chronic diseases of processed foods by regulating food ingredients and additives, such as sweeteners, sodium and refined carbohydrates.
- Make the nutritional and dietary quality core goals of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by leveraging incentive programs, healthier retail environments, and more effective education programs.
- Appoint a deputy assistant to the president for food, nutrition, and health at the White House Council on Homeland Policy, who can oversee nutrition policy and research.
These three recommendations, if taken seriously by the Biden-Harris Administration, could lead to long-lasting, transformative change in the food space.
Integrating better nutrition into federal nutrition programs
If next week’s conference is to be a success, I think it must also underline the principle that every American deserves fair access to the right, nutritious food. But will the Biden-Harris administration step up and prioritize nutrition — especially within federal nutrition programs — to combat the burgeoning obesity epidemic and reduce inequality and diet-related disease?
Talks have already led to expansion and increased investment in our federal food aid programs such as SNAP. And while this will increase food security for many, it alone doesn’t contribute to better nutrition.
SNAP benefits are associated with a high sugar, ultra-processed diet. Data shows that SNAP participants have poorer nutrition than Americans who do not use the program, suggesting that the federal program may exacerbate many of the diet-related health problems we now face. A 2016 USDA report on SNAP purchases, sweetened beverages (the main contributor to weight gain throughout life) were found to be the second most purchased product for SNAP households. By comparison, it was the fifth most purchased product for similar, non-SNAP households.
Four years ago, I co-chaired the SNAP Task Force at the Bipartisan Policy Center. Together we wrote a report that recommended limiting purchases of sugar-sweetened beverages with SNAP benefits. We insisted that SNAP’s core goals be complemented by a federal focus on nutrition and diet quality. Now is the time to make nutrition an important part of this program.
Any increasing investment in federal food aid programs should include: accompanied by simultaneously addressing our country’s obesity and nutritional crises. If we really want to fight hunger, improve nutrition and reduce diet-related diseases, we can start by doubling food quality and nutrition-specific research and education.
To address our country’s most pressing food challenges, we must prioritize nutrition. Bad food, bad nutrition and overall bad nutrition are making Americans sick. Next week’s White House conference provides a great opportunity to inform policy-level changes that directly benefit the health and well-being of every American. But this will only be achieved if we prioritize nutrition in clinical settings, as part of our federal nutrition programs, and doubly work to improve nutrition research and data.
Now is the time to act. We can – and should – go one step further to ensure every American has access to the right fuel for a happy, healthy life.