This morning found me at the National Food Policy Conference. The keynote speaker was Kathleen Sebelius, former governor of Kansas, and now serving in the Obama administration as Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
In her brief tenure, Sebelius has been busy framing a response to H1N1 influenza, and dealing with a host of food system issues for the new administration, an administration that is focusing seriously on food safety.
She got right to the point about childhood obesity. Sharing government statistics that medical treatment for all cancers in the U.S. tops $93 billion each year, she pointed out that the medical costs associated with treating obesity DOUBLE that, exceeding $186 billion per year. She indicated that chronic diseases cause 70% of deaths in America, and that their treatment represents 75% of all health care costs. She attributed much of America’s battle with obesity to poor childhood nutrition. Her conclusion? There will be huge benefits to both human health and the economy by addressing both childhood obesity and food safety.
Sebelius promised to “focus relentlessly on prevention,” viewing it as a “great investment.” There will be a national initiative, and American Recovery and Investment funds to support prevention efforts.
Sebelius is working closely on this effort with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. They served as governors together (Sebelius in Kansas, Vilsack in Iowa). The idea that DHHS and USDA will be working closely together – along with the Department of Education – is somewhat novel. This administration is emphasizing inter- and intra-agency cooperation to a degree seldom seen previously.
Food safety is a major area of focus for Sebelius. The national food safety workgroup she sits on has identified three core principles:
- Prioritizing food safety, not in response to specific crises, but to anticipate and prevent crises from occurring;
- Building partnerships and casting a wider net, sharing best practices across the nation, and building partnerships across agencies. Specifically, Secretary Sebelius spoke of the DHHS partnering with USDA on food safety, and with the Department of Education playing a role in childhood nutrition education.
- Being proactive.
Secretary Sebelius stated that along with the USDA, the DHHS strongly supports the pending WIC and Childhood Nutrition Reauthorization and the pending Senate food safety bill.
Like yesterday, imports were referenced in terms of food safety. Per Sebelius, 20% of food is imported, and more than 1/3 of produce and ¾ of seafood are imported. She spoke of the need to develop a 21st century food policy that emphasizes safety.
The morning’s big announcement was the launching of www.foodsafety.gov This website represents a significant effort to better serve American consumers by serving as a clearinghouse for all food safety issues. Recall and safety information is provided here, and you may sign up for email updates and feeds. There is a widget that enables individuals and agencies to link the website to their own sites. Mobile phone alerts regarding important food safety information will soon be available.
I visited the site today, and noted something interesting: the collaboration. This site is a joint effort between the White House, the USDA, the Centers for Disease Control, the FDA, DHHS, National Institutes of Health, and the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Services Division. This site is truly a valuable resource, and I urge you to visit it.
Sebelius noted that the “highest mission of any government is keeping its citizens safe.” The government’s new food safety website will help accomplish this.
Around lunchtime, I went with four colleagues over to the USDA for a meeting about the People’s Garden Initiative. While walking by the garden – which looks very different from when I saw it in March, a scant five weeks after it was planted – I saw Bob Snieckus. Bob is a landscape designer with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), which is one of seventeen USDA agencies. I met Bob last March at the People’s Garden Partnership Forum, when he shared design plans. Today, Bob was working in the garden on his lunch hour, doing some volunteer work to perfect what already looked wonderful in preparation for the USDA’s Harvest BBQ, an event for members of Congress that was being held tonight, before the President’s address on health care.
Our group of gardening advocates had a wonderful and productive meeting with USDA staff about national gardening efforts and the USDA’s work in this area. I’ll post tomorrow what I learned about the green and sustainable efforts being undertaken by the USDA. The great work being done there deserves its own blog posting!
- Breakfast meeting with the Executive Director of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition to learn more about federal ag policy and legislation, including the Farm Bill.
- Meeting with Kathleen Merrigan, Deputy Secretary of the USDA (gardening is one of three agenda items).
- Visit to the White House Garden. We have learned we will also be given a tour of the kitchen. New restrictions prevent us from taking any bags or cameras, but we believe that the White House staff will provide us with some pictures of our visit.
- Evening reception to present policy ideas to press and policy makers. Bet you can guess what my policy idea is….yes, a national gardening initiative like the WWI and WWII Victory Garden campaigns!
Random observations: High seventies today, scattered sprinkles. Warm and humid, but absolutely lovely this evening. We are staying at an historic hotel off of DuPont Circle, with a tiny lobby. As we crowded into the lobby this evening, preparing to walk to dinner, Madeline Albright and Tom Daschle came through the door, and headed up the flight of narrow stairs for a meeting. We ate dinner tonight at a restaurant called Founding Farmers. Founding Farmers is an unusual restaurant: it is owned by a collective of family farmers who are committed to serving sustainable food in a sustainable environment (the restaurant is LEEDS certified). The food was excellent, reflecting seasonal availability and a perfect mix of classic American dishes (cornbread and fried green tomatoes were appetizers we shared) and more eclectic offerings. The food is reasonably priced. I had a wonderful grilled cheese sandwich, tomato soup, and coffee. Six of us shared an enormous slice of red velvet cake and a scoop of vanilla ice cream.
My tablemates were Jim and Rebecca Goodman, Wisconsin dairy farmers; Lisa Kivirist, organic farmer/eco-preneur/writer/innkeeper from Wisconsin; Abigail Rogosheske, Institute of Ag and Trade Policy, Minnesota; Zoe Bradbury, young farmer/writer from Langlois, Oregon (and her husband, Danny, who is from Ventura!); and Roger Doiron, gardening hero and founder of Kitchen Gardeners International. Roger’s influence has made the White House visit possible. Thanks, Roger!
For food policy and public health wonks, the summer of 2008 will go down in the books, and California is leading the way. On July 27th, I blogged about the state's newly passed legislation requiring restaurants to cook without artery-clogging trans fats. http://ucanr.org/blogs/blogcore/postdetail.cfm?postnum=532In
On July 29th, the Los Angeles City Council approved a moratorium on new fast food restaurants in South Los Angeles, a move that was not without controversy. And just yesterday, August 7th, Los Angeles County Supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Mike Antonovich announced a proposal that will require fast food and chain restaurants to provide calorie counts for their menu items. While the legislation would only apply to unincorporated areas of the county, it would affect millions of residents. It comes to a vote next week, and is anticipated to receive a strong endorsement from the Los Angeles City Council.
Is this good public policy? Or do these measures represent the worst aspects of what some term the "nanny state?"
I don't claim to have the answers to these difficult questions, but I have reviewed a variety of statistics in the last two days. And after considering these statistics, I do understand why Los Angeles policy makers and legislators are feeling compelled to make some changes.
According to Los Angeles County Public Health statistics, the percentage of obese adults in the county increased from 14.3 percent in 1997 to 20.9 percent in 2005. So what does this mean?
This figure represents a lot of people. Per some sources, Los Angeles County is the most populous in the nation, with more than 10 million residents. (To give you an idea of the bigness of that figure, 27% of California's 38 million residents live in LA County).
It's got a young population, too: 28% of LA County residents are under the age of 18, and nearly 40% of the population is under the age of 24. About 15% of the county's population lives below the poverty line. (And that number is conservative: it doesn't reflect the alarming increase in families being pushed below the poverty line as the price of food and fuel skyrockets). 1 in 4 children living in the county are included in that sad statistic. And a significant percent of the county's population is uninsured; per the County's Public Health Department, 1 in 4 Los Angeles County children lack health insurance.
And many of those children desperately need medical care, because the childhood obesity rate in Los Angeles County is high. Based on California Physical Fitness testing assessments mandated for 5th, 7th and 9th graders, more than 1 in 5 of the county's students are obese. An excellent community survey conducted by the County's Department of Public Health http://lacounty.info/omd/q3_2007/cms1_077502.pdf showed a strong correlation between childhood obesity and economic hardship. This means that if you are a child living in poverty in Los Angeles County, you are more likely to be obese, for a number of reasons.
Will banning trans fats, providing moratoriums on fast food in poorer neighborhoods and requiring menu labeling help solve these problems?
I don't know, but it bears watching.
In the meantime, I've seen little legislation that promotes school, home and community gardening. That bears watching, too. Because banning "bad" foods is not the real solution. Providing healthier choices is...healthier choices like the fruits and vegetables that can be grown in a school, home or community garden.
"A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden."
Reaching youth with a healthy lifestyle message is vital. A healthy lifestyle incorporates proper eating, physical activity AND gardening. Educating youth about a healthy lifestyle is especially critical today: nearly one in three U.S. youth are obese. Using youth to reach youth with the healthy lifestyle message is essential to its success. Thankfully, there is an organization that is trying to do this in a big way.
Recently, I had the opportunity to travel to Kansas City, Missouri with my daughter, Natalie, so that she could participate in a special meeting. The opportunity was offered by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, which is a collaboration between the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association. The Alliance has recently selected twenty youth between the ages of 8 and 17 to serve as its youth advisory board, and to act as spokespersons for the issue of childhood obesity. The youth are from all across the nation, and have diverse interests, talents, life stories and goals. But they share one ambition: to help all youth lead a healthier lifestyle. They gathered in nearly the literal center of the nation - Kansas City, Missouri - to tackle one of the most serious issues facing youth: obesity.*
When we arrived in Kansas City after a long day of travel, we didn't know what to expect. We went down to the pool to meet the youth and their parents. Within minutes, the kids were friends. Since they've left Kansas City, they have been in constant contact via email, text messaging, phone and Facebook, sharing ideas, resources and energy. Each is commited to making a difference in their community. Together, they hope to make a difference nationally. After meeting them, I believe they will. They are already spreading out, like so many seeds tossed in the wind. Some are interviewing with newspapers. Some, like my daughter, have started blogging about healthy lifestyle issues. Others are speaking in public venues, getting youth to sign healthy lifestyle pledge cards, hosting community events to raise awareness of the issue...they are using their passion and creativity to reverse the tide of childhood obesity that threatens to overwhelm our nation's health system.
Their goals are ambitious: to stop the climb in childhood obesity by 2010, and to reverse the trend by 2015. Laudable goals. Amazing youth. I will watch their efforts with great anticipation. You can, too, by visiting the Alliance's website.
So what's the gardening link? Gardening provides a way to improve diet and is a form of healthy exercise. It's a great kid-friendly activity, too. Gardening is a vital part of a healthy lifestyle. Is it part of yours?
"A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden."
* For all you geography wonks, the actual geographic center of the contiguous (lower) 48 states is about four miles west of Lebanon, Kansas, at 98°35' West 39°50' North. That's about 458 miles from Kansas City, MO. Pretty close to center in a nation as big as this! But it was a nice literary device, right?