Making Nutrition a Priority

Friedman School gives four inaugural Jean Mayer Prizes for Excellence in Nutrition Science and Policy
Brigadier General Allyson Solomon of Mission: Readiness at Tufts
“Obesity really is the leading reason that young Americans are unable to serve,” said Brigadier General Allyson Solomon of Mission: Readiness, one of the award recipients. Photo: Caitlin Cunningham
October 22, 2018

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Long before Jean Mayer became the tenth president of Tufts University in 1976, he was a war hero. He fought with French forces in the battle of Dunkirk. After one skirmish with German soldiers, he had to walk several days with a bullet in his foot, leaving him with a permanent limp.

So it’s no wonder that when Mayer decided to take on the challenge of creating the first school of nutrition in the country, he did it with determination.

Mayer was a brilliant bench scientist, said Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School, but he knew that nutrition is also about behavior, economics, and policy.

“He really understood translating science into action,” Mozaffarian said. “That really to this day defines the Friedman School.”

On October 18, the Friedman School celebrated forty years of the university turning science into action by presenting the inaugural Jean Mayer Prize for Excellence in Nutrition Science and Policy to two people and two organizations that have embodied Mayer’s unwavering pursuit of a healthier world.

The $100,000 prize, sponsored by John Hancock, went to retired U.S. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa; former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack; the consumer advocacy Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI); and the nonpartisan policy group Mission: Readiness. Harkin and Vilsack asked that their shares of the award be given directly to charities they designated.

All the recipients worked to pass the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, a 2010 federal law that revamped the standards for the national school lunch and breakfast programs and increased access to healthy food for low-income children.

CSPI president Peter Lurie and Margo Wootan, its vice president for nutrition, accepted the award for their organization. Wootan said that the group spent fifteen years laying the groundwork for the law’s passage by gathering sponsors and diffusing opposition from the food and beverage industry. “But in the end thirty million children have healthier school lunches with more fruits and vegetables and soda, snack cakes, and candy bars are out of schools,” she said.

“Healthy eating today is like trudging through deep snow,” she said. “What we at CSPI do is to try to clear a path for people, to not only make it easier to eat well, but actually to make it possible to navigate this obesogenic food environment.”

In accepting his award, Vilsack said that he and Mozaffarian have discussed how helping Americans eat healthier would bring down health care costs, leaving much more money in the budget to fund education, defense, and other priorities.

“The power is in us, but we have to be led, we have to be directed, we have to be educated,” Vilsack told faculty and students at the Friedman School. “We have to know how to do that. That’s what the science is all about. It’s giving us the road map. It’s giving us the directions. It’s making it easier for us to understand.”

Rear Admiral James A. Barnett and Brigadier General Allyson Solomon accepted the award for 

Mission: Readiness, a group of 750 retired military leaders who have warned that obesity and malnutrition have decreased the pool of healthy recruits for American armed forces. Mission: Readiness’s most recent report on the issue, released last week, is called “Unhealthy and Unprepared.”

“Obesity really is the leading reason that young Americans are unable to serve,” Solomon said.  “The national security of this country depends on encouraging healthy lifestyles.”

Harkin said that he and the other awardees have had some success in making schools healthier. “However, it pains me to see some of that progress being halted with new regulations permitting more sugar, salt, and fewer whole grains in our school lunch program,” he said. “It’s up to us . . . to say that we’re not going to backslide on this progress that we have made toward a healthier nation.”

“Schools should be a sanctuary for our kids, not just another marketplace for hawking junk and sugary foods and drinks,” he said.

Julie Flaherty can be reached at Julie.flaherty@tufts.edu.