Will Uncle Sam give us a healthier food system?

Earlier this summer, the Association of Food Journalists invited me to moderate a debate on food policy between representatives of the Obama and Romney campaigns at their annual conference in Washington. The Obama team offered up Dora Hughes, a special advisor to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. The Romney folks stalled, then asked for some sample questions. When we provided them, they stopped responding to all calls and emails. Radio silence.

It would be easy to write this off as a classic example of Republicans avoiding what seems like a natural issue for Democrats. But a look at Obama’s record shows tepid support for many important food issues, from labeling for genetically modified foods (GMOs) to food safety and food marketing to kids. Only the photo-op-ready White House garden has delivered, and exceeded, its original promise.

Food should be the kind of issue on which the government can easily take the lead. After all, everybody eats. As I argue in the IATP Food and Community election food forum, in our hyper-partisan political climate, it is difficult for even a progressive government to take action. Any move that limits personal choice or even suggests that the government wants to “tell Americans what to eat” are made to seem as radical as calls to legalize prostitution.

This was not always the case. During the First and Second World Wars, the government was very clear about what patriotic citizens should eat – and what they shouldn’t. Posters admonished families to “Eat more corn,” “Eat Irish potatoes” and to “Eat more cottage cheese; You’ll need less meat.” My favorite, distributed in 1917 by the U.S. Food Administration, is very specific, indeed. It reads: “Eat more corn, oats and rye products. Fish and poultry. Fruits, vegetables and potatoes. Baked, boiled and broiled foods. Eat less wheat, meat, sugar and fats to save for the army and our allies.”

But those were the days when the government was accorded respect, not despised and misunderstood. (Get the government’s hands off my Medicare!) Even if the government were brave enough to tell us how to eat, would anyone listen?

Government does have a role. But it will be a patchwork of homegrown solutions that will create a just and healthy food system. In some places, charismatic political leaders will fight for good food. In Oklahoma City, Republican Mayor Mick Cornett has turned his town into what The New York Times calls “a laboratory for healthy living” with bike lanes, billboards and posters declaring the evils of sugary drinks and programs that offer free medical checkups in exchange for taking health classes. In Boston, Mayor Tom Menino introduced an urban agriculture initiative to increase access to affordable and healthy food. In other cities, grassroots efforts will be necessary to inspire action.

Sad as it is, we, the people, cannot wait for the government to create the food system we want. We must build it locally and force the government to take notice and act.

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  • About Me

    Jane BlackI am a Washington, D.C.-based food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. My work appears in the Washington Post, (where I was a staff writer), the New York Times, Saveur, New York magazine and other publications. On this site, you will find my blog and links to my written work and my Washington Post columns.