The Next Half-Century of Food

On the anniversary of a landmark White House conference, experts raise critical issues that affect nutrition for all of us
Five people sitting on a stage with a PowerPoint behind them. On the anniversary of a landmark White House conference on food, leaders come together to set the nutrition agenda
At the conference, from left, Dariush Mozaffarian, Kara Odom Walker, Darshak Sanghavi, Karen Pearl, and Howard Koh. Photo: Jared Charney
October 11, 2019

Share

With food systems under increasing economic, political, and environmental pressure, how can the nation promote good and sustainable nutrition for all? By working together, said nutrition, food industry, health care, and government leaders at a conference that marked the fiftieth anniversary of the groundbreaking White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health.

The two-day symposium was cohosted by Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, Tufts’ Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Department of Nutrition, and others.

In a day of discussions held at the Friedman School on October 4, panelists spelled out the challenges of the next fifty years, which include increasing food production to keep up with a growing population while reducing the food system’s damage to the planet.

Several speakers pointed to the need for more data and evidence, the importance of education, and the broad range of populations to consider. But most agreed on one thing: the need to solve today’s food and nutrition challenges as a team.

“Nutrition, sustainability, food, ethics—we need somebody to bring this all together in an evidence-based way so we know what the road map is for the future,” said Greg Drescher, vice president for strategic initiatives and industry leadership at the Culinary Institute of America. “We may not always follow it, but at least we have an integrated vision of it and where it’s going.”

To that end, the conference co-sponsors and nearly forty partners from many sectors will come up with concrete policy recommendations in coming months. Congressman Jim McGovern will also sponsor a Washington, D.C., event related to the conference on October 30.

Here are some of the possible steps that were discussed.

Regulate the marketing of highly processed foods to children. “There’s an enormous amount of evidence that people who eat a lot of ultra-processed foods consume more calories and are at more risk for disease,” said Marion Nestle, professor emerita of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University. “If we’re going to focus on trying to stop marketing food to children, focusing on ultra-processed foods gives us a clear line.”

Cover medically tailored meals under Medicare and Medicaid, so that patients have the nutrition they need for recovery. “We are never going to achieve the health-care goals of lowering costs and improving outcomes without fully integrating medically-tailored meals into health care,” said Karen Pearl, president and CEO of God’s Love We Deliver, a New York City-based nonprofit that prepares and delivers nutritious meals to very sick people. At the same time, said Darshak Sanghavi, chief medical officer of UnitedHealthcare’s Medicare and Retirement unit, “it doesn’t make business sense to have the health-care system become the principal supplier of food. We have to think analytically about identifying the highest risk individuals and what services they get, and how to measure outcomes in a thoughtful way.”

Improve the public health impact of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) by discouraging its use for unhealthy products, such as sugary beverages. “It touches 40 million Americans, and its 250,000 authorized retailers can affect us as non-SNAP users,” said Sarah Bleich, professor of public health policy at the Chan School. “When SNAP first started, the disease profile looked one way—now it’s different. We need to think about how to modernize the program in meaningful ways to address that.”

Support funding and flexibility for school meal programs. “A poorly fed kid is more likely to be poorly educated and not as effective a member of society. Adequate funding for these programs and giving school districts the flexibility they need is important,” said Dan Glickman, vice president and executive director of the Congressional Program at the Aspen Institute and former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in the Clinton administration. “We have a moral obligation to ensure people are well fed—this is a national problem.”

Work to reduce food waste. “It’s a really important part of what we do—reducing waste on the farm and at retail and consumer establishments, introducing more composting and biodigestive practices, looking at date labeling,” said Chellie Pingree, a lifelong farmer who represents the First District of Maine in the U.S. House of Representatives. “That would be the single biggest [return on investment] if we could straighten that one thing out.”

Better align food and agricultural subsidies with health policy. “We subsidize all the wrong foods—soda and processed foods are prevalent in our diet. Our plan is to subsidize densely nutritious foods in a way that makes them more accessible for people,” Pingree said. “I think those things should be inextricably linked—how we grow and eat food, and who has access.”

Think broadly about sustainability. “Many of the things we ask farmers to do to improve sustainability either increase their cost of production or have other ramifications on their production system. Farmers may grow to be more sustainable, but that’s not going to get them the income they need to survive,” said Stonyfield Director of Organic and Sustainable Agriculture Britt Lundgren. “What we can do better is to broaden the boundaries of the system we’re thinking about to include questions such as, how does income inequality affect consumers’ ability to purchase food?”

Look more closely at the effect of climate change on nutritional status. “We need to understand that invisible realm of how disruptions in climate are going to come back and affect the quality and quantity of food we produce,” said Samuel Myers, principal research scientist at the Chan School and director of the Planetary Health Alliance, citing examples such as reduced crop nutrient density due to carbon dioxide and lack of soil nutrients, and reduced crop yields related to fewer insect pollinators. “I’m interested in starting to quantify the nutritional impacts of these accelerating changes, and once we’ve looked at that, who the vulnerable populations are and what we can do to reduce those vulnerabilities.”

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