For those of us who are buffeted daily by the shrill alerts that spill across our screens urging us to do this and do that, well, here’s another one: Before May 8th, go to http://www.myplatemyplanet.org/ and urge the U.S. secretaries of Health and Human Services and Agriculture to accept, in total, the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC). This isn’t the Farm Bill; it’s not the Child Nutrition Bill; it’s not even Keystone; this is a blasé sounding report prepared by a panel of scientific experts whose collective wisdom will, if accepted by the secretaries, influence the physical health of every U.S. resident and the environmental health of our planet.
Why is this moment different and why does it matter? In a nutshell, acceptance of the guidelines and their eventual implementation will set the nutrition bar for SNAP, School Meals (30 million children), and WIC much higher than it is now. The “DGs” as I affectionately call them, which are reviewed and revised every five years based on the latest research, also effectively codify a standard of dietary behavior that may, over time, tame the raging bull of obesity that is currently trampling our nation’s young. Knowing what’s right to eat, as we know, doesn’t automatically change our food purchases, cooking practices, and lifestyle choices like physical activity. But the DGs sure give us a solid place to hang our hat when Big Sugar, Big Meat, and Big Fat tell us, “Ah shucks, folks, eat as much of us as you like ‘cause we ain’t gonna hurt ya.”
Except for a few food industry organizations like the National Pork Producers Council, whose president, Howard Hill, squealed that the advisory committee “was more interested in addressing what’s trendy among foodies,” there’s something in the DGs for everybody. Compared to past expert panels, this one chose to address questions of inequitable access to healthy food, dietary disparities between racial and ethnic groups (for instance, 29 percent of New Mexico’s Native Americans 3rd graders are obese compared to 13 percent of white 3rd graders), and the challenges to food security among lower income populations.
But what has set the air conditioners a rattlin’ at USDA and Farm Bureau offices was the DGs inclusion of that four-letter word – sustainability. The report says, “Meeting current and future food needs will depend on two concurrent approaches: altering individual and population dietary choices and patterns and developing agricultural and production practices that reduce environmental impacts and conserve resources….” I don’t care if the advisory panel was enjoying a little medical marijuana at the time they wrote these words, but a statement like this coming from a team of esteemed scientists is a great leap forward for humankind. While the Pork Producers may not feel this way, I was in hog heaven after seeing this report packed with so many goodies that it looked like a buffet table at an Italian wedding (perhaps not the best analogy in this case).
The sad news is that USDA Secretary Vilsack has already tipped his hand by signaling that he may reject the report’s sustainability language. As reported by the Wall Street Journal (3/11/15) his decision is likely to stick to his interpretation of the letter of the law, which he claims requires him to only focus on nutrition and dietary information. Not unexpectedly, Secretary Vilsack received a letter signed by 30 U.S. Senators, all but one of whom are Republican, that urged him to reject the recommendations that Americans cut back on their consumption of red and processed meats.
The Great Food Wars have been raging for decades across the finite real estate of the American stomach. As the DGAC makes it courageously clear, there is a lot at stake for everyone who eats, especially the vast majority of Americans whose health and well-being are severely compromised by their dietary choices. And with the inclusion of food production practices in the report, the DGAC has raised the stakes even higher by putting the future of the planet into play. While the nation’s farm bills and child nutrition bills have put hundreds of billions of dollars on the table, the Dietary Guidelines, without requesting a single dime of the taxpayers’ money, have also put the health of our citizens and the very future of our food supply on the table.
If you’re saying that you’re indifferent to the DG’s recommendations because you already make the right food choices, please think again. This is one of those cosmic occasions when astral bodies are in a state of perfect political, cultural, and scientific alignment that may not come again in our lifetime. This is when we are called to not only be good food consumers, but also to be good food citizens. So run, don’t walk, to your nearest communication device and, before May 8th, tell the powers-that-be that this country must take a stand for the health of this and future generations. Thank you.