One Congressman’s Quest For A Food Revolution
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One Congressman’s Quest For A Food RevolutionJoin the Fight For Better Food and Better Health
Editor's Note - Congressman Tim Ryan invites you to join the new crusade for healthier food and a healthier society in his new book The Real Food Revolution: Healthy Eating, Green Groceries, and the Return of the American Family Farm. Below is an excerpt from the book.
Hello. My name is Tim Ryan. I am addicted to chicken wings and ice cream. Ask anyone. My wife, my friends, my acquaintances. Oh yeah. We could finish a huge meal and a half hour later I’ll crave a handful of buffalo chicken wings just to wrap up the night.
One night out on the road with my brother Al and some friends, I had an incident. Al was already asleep in the hotel room we were sharing, having gone up to bed not long after dinner. I came in, and, you guessed it, I ordered some chicken wings and a side of ice cream from room service. While I waited for my food I turned on the TV, took off my shirt, and stretched out on the bed. As I flipped through the channels I found the old, original Batman TV show. You know, the one with Adam West where Batman and Robin almost die at the end of every episode. Eventually the chicken wings and ice cream arrived. I immediately started eating the wings, piling the bones on a plate next to me on the bed.
Then as I began to put a scoop of ice cream in my mouth something terrible happened. Al rolled over and looked at me with wing sauce on my face and ice cream heading to my mouth. Busted, I thought. He then looked at the TV and didn’t see an old movie or SportsCenter, but a Batman rerun from the ’60s. He turned back to me with a look only an older brother could give a little brother and said, “What in the hell are you doing?” Trying to at least sidestep the food issue, I said, “I think this is the final episode. The Joker really has Batman and Robin in the crosshairs.” All he said was, “You got issues,” and rolled over and went back to sleep.
I share this story because I want you to know that I am not a purist. I am not an absolutist or an extremist. I love food, and lots of different kinds of food. I go on different diets and then I cheat. Every week I try to watch what I eat—to be good, so that at some point I can be bad. But I have, slowly and over time, moved myself in the direction of healthier eating. I have started to pay more attention, especially now that I am married with a ten-year-old daughter, an eleven-year-old son, and a newborn baby boy.
It seems that everything is so complicated these days, particularly in Washington, DC, which is why I revel in finding something simple to follow. The kind of advice grandmothers give to small children. Like the first words of Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” By food, he means whole food, real food, not “food-like substances.” I try to do that these days.
What Washington Has To Do With Unhealthy Food In America
While I have had personal setbacks like the one with my brother, as a member of the United States Congress I have also watched many public setbacks as our government continues policies and strategies that make eating bad food or fake food the most convenient option. I’m guessing you know what I mean by fake food. In fact, I saw some just a few minutes ago at the checkout counter when I was buying some sticky notes and printer paper at Staples. (Yes, we buy food at office supply stores these days. Go figure.) It was a package of super-stuffed “cheese” cracker sandwiches, but there was nothing in it that resembled what my grandparents would have called cheese, and the top ingredients were corn sweetener and oil from soy and some highly processed flour, and then the usual bunch of unpronounceable ingredients to make the snack look more appealing and last until my ten-year-old daughter graduates from college.
In America, we love our food. We must, because supplying us with food is very big business. The Fortune 500 companies behind our tasty snacks, prepared meals, and groceries earned $745 billion in 2013, and by 2015 it’s estimated that sales for snack foods alone will top $333 billon. We love our food, yes, but I’m not so sure all this food is loving us back. Why does our food system matter so much to a U.S. Congressman? It matters because cheap, convenient food is costing us a lot in health care costs down the road, and because the most basic resource we require to be a dynamic, innovative country—a nutritious, healthy, reliable food supply—is broken:
• 35 percent of adults are obese
• Obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years
• In 2012, more than one-third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese
• In 2012, 15 percent of American households were food insecure, accounting for 49 million Americans—33.1 million adults and 15.9 million children
Simply put, whether it’s obesity, food insecurity, or other negative health outcomes from poor nutrition, the majority of Americans are ill-served by our food system. That’s a crisis, I’d say.
Fake Food Equals Real Health Problems
The kind of food we get and how we get it matters. We have come to the point where the government is effectively “prescribing” a diet for Americans—and prescribing medicine—because the diet is making enough people unwell that they require expensive medication to compensate. Your tax dollars are making fake food cheaper. Yes, I said it. And it is true. Hardworking families try to make ends meet and also meet their societal obligations by paying taxes. And what does the United States Congress do with that money? It makes fake food artificially cheaper than it would otherwise be in a free market.
The massive payments we make to “support” our food system go largely to big producers for corn, soy, and wheat; little goes to smaller, regional farmers producing diversified specialty crops—including fruits and vegetables—in more sustainable and humane ways. And then we eat that food, get sick, and need care, which is often funded by the government through Medicare and Medicaid and the credit available for middle-income families taking part in the Affordable Care Act. So we pay to make cheap food, and then we pay to heal people who eat that cheap food.
Not All Bad News, Thank Goodness!
I do feel the need to share some of the bad news that doctors, farmers, cooks, and advocates for healthier food and a clean environment have shared with me, but I hope this acts not to bum you out, but instead to fire you up. I hope you see this information as a wake-up call to help us focus on what we need to do. That’s what the first part of my book is about. But have no fear—things are changing. Part II of my book outlines what I call the real food revolution. Yes, change is already under way. There are amazing people out there doing amazing things. And they started just like you and I. They saw a problem and tried to fix it. And we can all join with them—or step out on our own—to help move our national diet and the supply chain that supports it in the direction of greater health, well-being, and sustainability.