Dean to U.S. Senators: It’s Time to Reinvent the Nation’s Food System

A second White House conference will be a major step toward conquering nutrition insecurity and diet-related disease, said Friedman School’s Dariush Mozaffarian
Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy
“It’s been 52 years since the nation came together to chart a national strategy around food and nutrition. Much has changed in 52 years,” said Dariush Mozaffarian. Photo: Kelvin Ma / Tufts University
November 2, 2021

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Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, spoke before a United States Senate committee Tuesday morning in support of a bipartisan bill to convene a second national White House conference on food, nutrition, hunger, and health.

Introduced by U.S. Senators Cory Booker of New Jersey and Mike Braun of Indiana and U.S. Representatives James P. McGovern of Massachusetts and Jackie Walorski of Indiana, the bill proposes building on the work of the first White House conference in 1969, which led to the creation and expansion of programs including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and the National School Breakfast and Lunch Program.

Mozaffarian has long called for change in our food system and federal nutrition strategy. In recent years, he convened a Federal Nutrition Policy Advisory Group that is urging a nutrition “moonshot,” laid out in their white paper advocating greater investment and coordination in federal nutrition research. Mozaffarian also led the Friedman School in co-hosting a 2019 nutrition symposium with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health to mark the half-century anniversary of the 1969 nutrition conference.

“It’s been 52 years since the nation came together to chart a national strategy around food and nutrition. Much has changed in 52 years,” Mozaffarian said Tuesday in his testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Food and Nutrition, Specialty Crops, Organics, and Research. “It’s time to bring everyone together again to reimagine our national food system for the next 50 years.”

The situation is dire, Mozaffarian said. One out of every two American adults is diabetic or pre-diabetic, and three in four struggle with obesity or are overweight. These and other diet-related health conditions disproportionately impact vulnerable populations such as ethnic minorities and those living in rural areas—and the people affected are twelve times more likely to die after being infected by COVID-19.

This public health crisis is also a government spending crisis, Mozaffarian added, pointing out that direct health care spending on diabetes alone has ballooned to more than the entire budget of the United States Department of Agriculture. It’s also a national security issue—three out of four young Americans are ineligible to serve in the military, with the top medical reason being obesity—and a major problem for our economy, with $1.1 trillion lost each year in health care spending and decreased productivity due to diet-related diseases.

“We are on a path to disaster,” Mozaffarian said. “We have to get these health care costs under control, and we’re absolutely not going to do it until we address the top cause, which is poor nutrition.”

The proposed second national White House conference on the topic would take a whole-government approach to ending hunger and reducing food and nutrition insecurity, which would include diverse voices and input from those directly affected. It would address multinational corporations’ disproportionate level of control over our food system, according to Booker, as well as food deserts and economic insecurity suffered by farmers, ranchers, and rural communities.

In his testimony, Mozaffarian suggested six specific areas of focus for federal efforts: advancing nutrition science and research; employing a food-as-medicine approach in health care; strengthening federal nutrition programs such as school meals, SNAP, and WIC; catalyzing business innovation; expanding nutrition education and public health; and coordinating federal food policy.

Mozaffarian also laid out his food-as-medicine philosophy, which centers on using food in our health care system. “Some of the most exciting science has been on integrating food into health care and how that can reduce costs,” he said.

He outlined a four-part formula, including Medicare or Medicaid coverage for medically tailored meal programs for the sickest patients, which research has shown reduces hospitalizations and ER visits. The formula also includes full or partial insurance coverage for produce prescriptions for people with diet-sensitive diseases, which research has shown is at least as cost-effective as cholesterol drugs in preventing heart attacks. The formula also would provide reimbursement for visits to dietitians, which are currently not covered, and would give doctors nutrition education, including nutrition test questions on medical licensing exams.

“We literally have a legacy food system built for 20th century goals, with 21st century problems,” Mozaffarian said. A second national nutrition conference would be a major step toward “making America the 21st-century breadbasket for nourishing food that heals our bodies, reduces healthcare spending, supports our military, stewards our natural resources, and creates new businesses and jobs.”

“We need to sit down together as a nation and say, ‘How do we want to design our food system?’” Mozaffarian said. “The food system we have today was consciously created to be what it is. We can do that again.”

Monica Jimenez can be reached at monica.jimenez@tufts.edu.