Time for a national strategy on food

Time for a national strategy on food
© istock

We are facing a national nutrition crisis that cuts lives short, costs us trillions of dollars and holds us back from achieving our goals as individuals and a nation. Yet, our country has no national plan, no real strategy, to fix our food system. A recent U.S. Senate Hearing on the “State of Nutrition in America” placed an exclamation point on this reality. Every senator and expert witness who spoke agreed: We face a nutrition crisis, and the status quo is untenable.

The White House and Congress must come together and develop a plan to fix food. In 2018, Congress asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the top federal watchdog agency, to audit how federal food policies addressed diet-related chronic diseases. After a comprehensive three-year evaluation, the nonpartisan GAO recently released its landmark report, “Chronic Health Conditions: Federal Strategy Needed to Coordinate Diet-Related Efforts.” 

The GAO concluded that diet-related conditions like heart disease, diabetes, cancer and obesity are deadly, costly — and largely preventable. These diseases caused over half of U.S. deaths in 2018, and during COVID-19, Americans with such conditions were 12 times more likely to die after infection. The GAO further found that the U.S. government spends more than $200 billion annually — and the cost is rising — to treat these conditions; and that these diseases are largely preventable with a healthy diet and other behaviors like exercise.


Importantly, the GAO identified 200 different federal efforts, spread across 21 federal agencies, which aim to improve nutrition. But, the GAO found that these diverse investments are fragmented and disharmonized, keeping the government from meeting its goals of improving Americans’ diets and health. Based on its detailed assessment, the GAO made one clear, straightforward recommendation: A federal strategy is needed to enable these disparate government efforts to work together and coordinate diet-related efforts to reduce Americans' risk of chronic health conditions. Such a plan should include measured outcomes and resources, leadership and accountability.

We could not agree more. Our country faces a national nutrition crisis, with no overarching strategy to address this. This is a crushing burden on our economy. A recent analysis from The Rockefeller Foundation found that the U.S. each year spends about $1.1 trillion on food, but then loses $2.1 trillion in diet-related health care spending, lost productivity, lost livelihoods, climate change and depleted natural resources. This is not small change: If we reduced these economic losses by even one-tenth, we could have paid for the entire bipartisan infrastructure package that Congress just passed.

In 1969, President Nixon, with bipartisan support from Sens. George McGovern (D-S.D.) and Bob Dole (R_Kan,), convened the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health — the first and still only time the federal government convened to chart a national strategy around food and nutrition. That conference and its findings established much of our current food policy, including around the National School Lunch and Breakfast Program, Food Stamps (now SNAP), the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), nutrition labeling and dietary guidelines. These programs have been critically important and done much good. But much has changed in 52 years, and we face many new challenges.

It’s time to craft a new national plan on food and nutrition, with three clear goals: to improve nutrition, end hunger and reduce costly and deadly diet-related diseases. A harmonized strategy would include actions in science and research, the healthcare system, federal nutrition programs, business innovation and nutrition education, as well as a leadership structure to ensure coordination. And such a plan should prioritize benefits for Americans, regardless of geography, political party, age, race/ethnicity, income or education. 

On Oct. 26, a bipartisan bill was introduced simultaneously in both the U.S. House and Senate by Reps. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Jackie WalorskiJacqueline (Jackie) R. WalorskiGOP beginning to jockey for post-election leadership slots Time for a national strategy on food Ethics watchdog finds 'substantial' evidence Rep. Malinowski failed to disclose stocks MORE (R-Ind.) and Sens. Cory BookerCory BookerMaternal and child health legislation must be prioritized now Poll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season MORE (D-N.J.) and Mike BraunMichael BraunManchin to vote to nix Biden's vaccine mandate for larger businesses GOP fears boomerang as threat of government shutdown grows Overnight Defense & National Security — Senate looks to break defense bill stalemate MORE (R-Ind.), calling on the White House to convene a Conference on Food, Nutrition, Hunger, and Health. Just this is news — in our current acrimonious political environment, this kind of cooperative, bipartisan energy is rare and underlines the urgency of the nutrition crisis we face. Such a conference would bring together all the federal agencies, Congress, diverse external stakeholders and the voices of Americans with lived experiences to craft a new national plan to fix food.

The food system is already being disrupted by changes in consumer demand, technology, science, investment and supply chains. A national plan would accelerate and further catalyze positive innovation in our food system, creating new jobs and small businesses, including those owned by people of color and low-income food entrepreneurs who can create wealth and nourishment in their communities. The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored fundamental weaknesses in our food system, including widespread nutrition insecurity, fragile supply chains, increasing inequities, as well as a dire epidemic of obesity and diabetes.

These multi-faceted, interrelated challenges can only be solved by a comprehensive, coordinated assessment and strategy. It is time to convene the federal government and other diverse stakeholders for a second White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, Hunger, and Health to create a new vision for our food system for the next 50 years. We are at a crucial tipping point to make it happen.

Dan Glickman is a former secretary of Agriculture (1995-2001), former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, (1977-1995), and a Board member of the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research. Follow him on Twitter: @DanRGlickman

Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian is a cardiologist and dean of the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. Follow him on Twitter: @Dmozaffarian 

Ertharin Cousin is the former director of the United Nations’ World Food Programme, serving from 2012 to 2017. She is a is a distinguished fellow of global food and agriculture at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center on Food Security and the Environment.