Immigration reform could help stop obesity
The food movement should make immigration reform its top priority during the rest of the Obama administration, White House nutrition policy adviser Sam Kass said in a wide-ranging speech Wednesday.
“If you speak to fruit and vegetable farmers, they don’t ask for subsidies. They ask for a dependable labor force. If we want to change the food system this is an issue we need to get engaged in,” said Kass, who is also executive director of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Campaign.
The Senate has passed an immigration reform bill, he noted, adding that President Barack Obama “is waiting for the speaker act.”
Kass made his remarks at The New York Times “Food for Tomorrow” conference held at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, N.Y. (See link to Kass’s speech below.)
The conference was headlined by food advocates who have pushed hard for the administration to take strong positions on healthy food, but have also criticized its efforts as not tough enough, even though the School Nutrition Association, which represents school food service directors and the companies that make school foods, and Republican leaders in Congress have proposed rolling back the school meal rules under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act.
The food movement’s second priority should be raising the minimum wage, Kass said, noting that low incomes prevent many people from eating healthier foods.
The third priority should be addressing climate change and the fourth should be using provisions in the Affordable Care Act to encourage hospitals and other health care providers to make healthy eating a part of prescriptions for patients.
“Food is our medicine,” Kass said. He added that Wholesome Wave, a Connecticut group, has done “incredible” work to encourage doctors to issue vegetable prescriptions, but that there is “massive, untapped potential” in this area.
Fifth, Kass said, the food movement should work to increase demand for healthy foods.
“We will only be successful if we understand the limits of Washington’s ability to solve these problems,” he said. “Food is one of the ultimate expressions of who we are, of our culture, of our understanding of ourselves. The food choices we make are a part of those values.”
It is for those reasons, he added, that the administration has put so much effort into opposing the marketing of “junk foods” to children and promoting the marketing of healthier foods.
“We have to make things like fruits and vegetables and whole grains as fun and sexy and emotionally charged as sugary drinks and chips,” he added.
Kass also defended the administration’s decision to ask pharmaceutical companies to voluntarily stop marketing antibiotics for animal growth.
“Anyone who tells you the work we have done on antibiotics is toothless is just simply dead wrong,” Kass said, noting that 25 companies that provide antibiotics for animal use are changing their labels.
If farmers do not administer antibiotics according to the label “they are in violation of the law,” he said, adding that “It will no longer be legal to use antibiotics for growth promotion.”
“People are right to point to enforcement as a serious issue,” he said, but “that was going to be an issue no matter what steps we took.”
The administration is “pushing for transparency” to assess the success of that strategy, and if administration officials do not see the approach is succeeding “we will take additional steps.”
Kass praised provisions of the farm bill including the level of conservation spending compared to crop subsidies, the end of direct payments and the increase in research for specialty crops. But he also said “Partisanship is holding progress back.”
“We were not pleased with levels of crop insurance in the farm bill,” he said. While advocates for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP or food stamps, had prevented the proposed work requirements and a $40 billion cut in benefits from being included in the final bill, Republicans “were able to decouple SNAP from other social safety programs,” which makes it harder for low income people to gain access to the program, he added.
Kass urged the advocates to “know your allies and be open to new allies” and not “discredit” leaders who have taken actions that are not completely satisfying.
“If you hack away at their legs, it makes it harder for them to walk,” he said.
Foodies should “celebrate our wins better,” he said, adding that they must accept “the food industry is here to stay.”
No world leader, he said, will take seriously the notion that it is not necessary to “engage the food industry that is feeding everybody.”
With health insurance companies, he said, the message should not be the importance of local food, but that healthy eating reduces costs. With school administrators, the message should not be that food is the center of everything, but that healthy eating will improve test scores.
“Right now we have a lot of momentum,” Kass said. “A politician will be the first to tell you that momentum is one of the most difficult things to secure. But it is also one of the most critical and we have it.”
“Even the push-back excites me.,” he added. “I love the push-back. It is indicative of just how much progress we are making. Every day I am stunned by how far we have come.”
But Kass warned the foodie audience that “the ballot box is as important as the lunch box. Voters need to care. If we are serious about change then we need to get serious about politics. In states where a lot of these crops are grown people care and a lot of money is invested in the system.”
The road toward healthier eating and ending obesity and poverty will be filled with arguments, reversals and fights, Kass said, but “kid by kid, school by school, policy by policy, it is the only path forward and it is going to get us where we need to go.”
–The Hagstrom Report