The politics of food

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For those aspiring to be president, the relationship with food is complex and fraught with challenging contradictions. Despite being the wealthiest nation in the world, 45 million Americans will rely on food stamps this month to put food on the table for themselves and their families. Food hardship, or the inability to afford enough food, affects families around the country, particularly those with children. A recent analysis of Gallup data, released by the Food Research Action Council, reports that nearly one in four of the nation’s households with children suffer from food hardship.


Candidates must also figure out how to address our nation’s poor eating habits and lack of physical activity while not treading on individual freedom or embracing a “nanny state.” The federal government provides some direction on both nutrition and exercise through both Dietary and Physical Activity guidelines. From there, food choices are affected by multiple factors, including access, price and personal choice. Physical activity is dictated by access to infrastructure and programming, where you live and whether your school has Physical Education. What we know is that childhood obesity rates have increased steeply over the past 30 years and that currently, one in three American children is obese or overweight. These high rates are responsible, at least in part, for chronic obesity-related disease, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma. And the costs of caring for people with these health conditions is staggering. According to one recent study, the health care costs of obesity-related disease reach $147 billion/year.

The Iowa State Fair is just the beginning of the campaign season and it is too early to expect the candidates to engage these questions. While food and nutrition are first-tier issues for Americans, the political risks of talking about food have generally kept these issues off the campaign trail. As a result, there is little commentary when candidates rail against deficits driven largely by rising health care costs and then mug for “candid” shots of themselves enjoying this year’s culinary item du jour - - sticks of butter, coated in a mixture of flour and honey, deep fried and sprinkled with confectionary sugar. As the campaign season continues, we look forward to the candidates engaging more forcefully on the related issues of hunger, nutrition, and physical activity. Like so many of the challenges we face, these issues call out for leadership. A skillful leader can navigate the political shoals and promote behaviors and policies that enhance individual well being and the fiscal health of our nation. The President and First Lady have sought to raise the profile of these issues. However, like all efforts to influence the future of a politically divided nation, this must be a bipartisan discussion. The good news is that it can be.  


Dan Glickman is a Senior Fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. He was a Democratic representative from Kansas from 1977 to 1995 and Secretary of Agriculture from 1995 to 2001. Jason Grumet is the president of the Bipartisan Policy Center.