Real Food, Real Policy in "The Real Food Revolution"
Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan on improving our food, our health, and building stronger coalitions to advance the healthy food movement
Back to the Basics
U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan arrived at the coffee shop in Bermuda shorts and flip-flops early one Saturday morning in Youngstown, Ohio, as I nervously waited in my business suit fresh from the farm field. After an introduction and the kind of hug you give a long lost friend, the Ohio congressman sat down for an interview around one of his passions—food policy. What was supposed to be a 30-minute interview turned in to a two-hour conversation as he attentively asked how farm bill programs and FDA rules were affecting the family farm. Soon I began to wonder who was interviewing who.
A six-term Congressman, Rep. Ryan from Ohio’s 13th district came on to the food policy scene in 2014 after the publication of his book, The Real Food Revolution: Healthy Eating, Green Groceries and the Return of the American Family Farm. For many in food policy, his passionate look at farm and food policy in the United States comes as a pleasant surprise. He is not on the agriculture committee, nor representing a majority rural community. Instead, Rep. Ryan came to champion reformed food and farm policy through his work on the House Appropriations Committee and his concern that the government is subsidizing cheap convenient food that is causing many of America’s health problems.
“We look to balance the budget and cut spending but we are funding an agriculture system high in processed and sugar foods that ultimately translates back into our staggering healthcare costs. On the appropriation committee there is concern about the rising cost of healthcare in the budget but there has not been a conversation around the disconnect between our farm and food funding and our healthcare expenses. We know there is a direct correlation between healthcare and nutrition, and we need to get back to the basics.”
Where Policy Meets the Road
One example that Rep. Ryan discussed during the House Appropriation Committee meeting on June 24, is the highly government-funded school meal program. The program has been in the national spotlight since First Lady Michelle Obama took on the issue and championed for change. As Rep. Ryan points out, however, the United State Department of Agriculture (USDA) continues to report that a typical school lunch far exceeds the recommended 500 milligrams of sodium; some districts, in fact, serve lunches with more than 1,000 milligrams. The USDA also reports that less than a third of schools stay below the recommended standard for fat content in their meals. Despite science-based evidence that eating high levels of fat and sodium can lead to obesity and diabetes, Congress continues to argue over the role the government should play in regulating school meal programs.
“In my district, like many districts around the county, we have 40–60% or more students on Medicaid. These same students, roughly 32 million, also consume over half their daily calories in the form of school meals through subsidized school meal programs. We will now sit back and wait until the student develops diabetes, where we will then fund their healthcare. Then Congress will come back and argue again about funding their healthcare after we failed to feed them healthy and nutritious food each day. We are a sick country, and only funding our illness.”
Congress needs to make these connections in all aspects of our food and healthcare funding and realize we cannot continue on the current path and be able to afford its consequences long term.
It’s Rep. Ryan’s belief that Congress must make decisions and start innovating to bend the cost curve of our healthcare system.
Rep. Ryan says just because we have a complicated problem, doesn’t mean we need a complicated solution. To start, we need to increase food and nutrition education for youth, shift subsidies to increase affordability and access to healthy and regional food, and build coalitions to create a healthy food political movement.
For Tim Ryan, food education goes beyond just having Americans learn the USDA’s MyPlate icon. Food education starts with a better understanding of how to grow food and cook healthy meals. This includes getting a school garden and salad bar in every school. In June, Rep. Ryan introduced the Salad Bar in Schools Expansion Act. The act would establish grant funding to provide training, technical assistance, and placement of salad bars in elementary, middle, and high schools across the country. Previous pilot programs have proven to be an effective and affordable way to make school lunches healthier and increase fruit and vegetable consumption. This allows students to try different varieties and allows schools to incorporate local and seasonal foods into their menus.
Food and nutrition education go beyond youth education, though. Rep. Ryan is also concerned about our educational spending through current Cooperative Extension Programs. Originally, Agricultural Extension programs were funded through one-third federal, one-third state, and one-third county. Extension education and research budgets, however, have continually been slashed over the past two decades and now only receive 10% of their budgets from the Federal government, causing universities and researchers to look for grant funding from outside sources. This type of sponsored funding has led to extension research being heavily geared towards commodity and larger agricultural production farms.
Extension’s original mission was to seek scientific research aimed at making farms and ranches more profitable. Rep. Ryan wants to be sure there is equal amount of research being done for commodity growers as well as specialty crop and organic growers. Farmers rely heavily on county extension agents and programs. The lack of research and support coming from local offices for producers looking to transition, or begin specialty and organic farms, creates a knowledge gap too big for many to overcome. Rep. Ryan believes we need more federal funding for extension programs that allow for research to better equip producers to grow food that will lead to the best healthcare outcomes, and in turn, allow for taxpayers to get a true return on our investment. The goal is more profitable farms that lead to better health outcomes for us all.
Coalitions for Healthy Food
Rep. Ryan knows that for many the idea of eating healthy food is more wishful thinking than a reality. Our current food policies have subsidized the food industry’s creation of cheap, mostly unhealthy calories. Despite our history, however, he is determined to end that reality.
On many occasions he has spoken about the need to shift the nearly $14 billion the USDA spends on crop insurance subsidies to more innovative ways of subsiding fruits, vegetables, and healthier foods. This would include increasing grant funding to develop and build specialty crop infrastructure and more regional food economies, and look to develop policies that would require prisons, schools, and universities to spend federal dollars on local and regional food.
“By increasing marketplace demand and increasing our research on the development of more profitable specialty crop farms, we will grow more farmers, more infrastructure, and bring down the price of local and healthier food. We need to be innovative and take a hard look at crop insurance funding and how can we use even a fraction of those dollars to make healthier food more affordable and accessible to every American.”
As we sat in the coffee shop in Youngstown, Rep. Ryan was discussing policy reform that, as a farmer, I had only dreamed a congressman would propose. He is in the minority on Capitol Hill, though, and when I finally asked him where do we start and how do we get Congress to start listening he simply said, “coalition building.”
Rep. Ryan is quick to note that large agricultural and food corporations have enormous lobbying power. It will take all of us concerned about healthy farms and food to come together and demand change. We must bring environmentalist, renewable energy, foodies, organic lovers, locavores, dieticians, healthcare professionals, school administrators, nutritionists, and anyone who is concerned with where our federal dollars are going in both farm, food, and healthcare policy to the table. Rep. Ryan encouraged those seeking change to organize around specific policies, such as extension funding and school lunch programs. Then work to identify leaders and get individuals elected on to school boards and county commissions throughout the state in key districts who will work for change.
Coalitions need to start counting their numbers and take those folks demanding change to Congress members and hold them accountable. Tell them you are watching and make sure they know how many of their constituents are on the side of reform. We so often feel like we cannot make change, or that Congress doesn’t listen, but they do. Rep. Ryan assured me they do pay attention to just how many constituents stand together in an educated and informed coalition.
We have a champion in Congress wanting to make radical change in food and farm policy—Ohio’s Congressman Tim Ryan. Now it’s up to us to build political pressure and ask Congress: How will you fund the healthcare costs of the future with the farm policy of today?