The consensus is in: What we put into our bodies matters. Gone are the days when junk food served by a clown was considered on par with mom’s home cooking. Long gone are the days when soda was considered a health food product. The conversation about healthy eating has reached a fever pitch—even big box stores have jumped on the organic food train. By some estimates, Costco became the largest organic grocer in the country last year.
This is all good news. According to Representative Tim Ryan (D–OH), it’s this kind of news that’s going to change our world.
Rep. Ryan believes that food policy is the convergence of all the issues that face our country. “Whether it’s education, the long-term health of our society, long-term healthcare costs; whether it’s the environment, how we grow the food, raise the cattle, the meat that we eat: This is really where all these issues come to pass,” he says. “I think if we’re going to transform our country, it really needs to start in a fundamental way with our food system.”
In a nation rampant with socioeconomic inequality, racial unrest, threats of domestic and international terrorism, and increasing devastation brought on by climate change, it may seem idealistic to say that the way to revolutionize and revitalize the country is through food policy. But, plain and simple, food is an essential building block to life. What we put into our bodies very tangibly becomes the driving force of our nation. If we put bad stuff in, we’re only going to get bad results.
Rep. Ryan identifies the fundamental problem with food policy as being the federal subsidization of crops that turn into processed foods. When we pay our farmers to grow certain crops, like wheat and soy and corn, these crops “end up making that highly-processed food very, very cheap.” The effects of such consumption patterns over the past few decades are starting to become dramatically clear. “Whether it’s diabetes, obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, or Alzheimer’s,” says Rep. Ryan, “a lot of this is getting linked back to our diets.”
To fix this, according to Rep. Ryan, we need to shift the system so that we’re subsidizing healthy foods to ensure that fruits, vegetables, and lean meats—non-processed products—are accessible and affordable in our grocery stores, our farmer’s markets, and our schools. The first step is to shift the subsidies at the policy level. Rep. Ryan says it’s possible to pay farmers the same amount of money they’re being paid now for growing healthy crops.
The next step, he says, is to create markets for this food. “We pay billions of dollars in our country through public institutions through purchasing food, whether it’s our schools, our universities, our prisons, our government buildings,” he says. If these institutions alone made a commitment to purchase healthy food, it could initiate radical change.
Rep. Ryan says that Ohio State University’s commitment to spend 2 percent of its food budget on locally-sourced fruits, vegetables, and lean meat is a good example of this. “Local farmers now have a huge incentive to begin to shift their crops from, say, corn to other produce,” he says. “Imagine if all the schools K–12 in the same region did the same thing, and all the prisons, and all the private colleges. You can begin to see how a market can be created for farmers to move in that direction.”
Change also happens on a grassroots level, Rep. Ryan says, and we’re beginning to see demands to adjust our nation’s food policy as an outgrowth of the foodie movement, in all its different iterations. He recognizes that there are a lot of people interested in these issues, whether that be urban farming or sustainable farming or organic farming. But interest alone isn’t enough. Being able to organize is the key to starting to make a change. If all the people in a town who are interested in urban farming, for example, organized with all the parents who are concerned about what their kids are eating in school or the high level of antibiotics in food—they’re going to be able to start to influence policy, Rep. Ryan says.
At least that’s why he’s trying to do: To make people aware that they have to be involved in the political process. “You have to be engaged. You have to be organized. You have to be registered to vote. You have to hold your legislators accountable,” he says. It has to have support at a grassroots level all over the country, Rep. Ryan says, before he and his colleagues in Washington, D.C., can begin to initiate change at a policy level.
“If you want it to be sustainable, you have to have an action plan. You have to be organized and get moving and get engaged in the process,” he says.
Lisette Cheresson is a writer, filmmaker, poet, and adventuress who is an avid composter, vagabond, and dirt-collector. When she’s not attempting to create pretty sentences or reading pretty sentences other people have created, it’s a safe bet that she’s either hopping a plane, dancing, practicing yoga, or baking a pie. She is currently the Managing Editor of Wanderlust Media.