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Policymakers discuss altering American diet and food policy
By WHITNEY PIPKIN
WASHINGTON (April 14, 2015) — A series of panel discussions hosted by The Washington Post Live in late March gave audience members — and online viewers — the chance to hear directly from agricultural voices working to change the way we eat in America.
The “Changing the Menu” event, part of an America Answers series, featured Post reporters and columnists interviewing chefs, politicians, nonprofit founders and other innovators about food policy at Arena Stage.
Viewers could ask questions from the audience or on social media as they followed a live video stream of the event.
Post columnist Ruth Marcus began her interview with the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, by reading a Wall Street Journal opinion piece that called for reforming the Obama administration’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
The writer of the piece wrote that the program does little to address the growing national problem of obesity and that “Michelle Obama’s fitness initiatives are trying to address a problem that is exacerbated by her husband’s food-stamp policies.”
“This is an opportunity to educate folks about SNAP,” Vilsack said to start his response to the editorial. He had already written a counterpoint to the piece that appeared online a couple days later.
He said the program functions as it should, that “four out of five SNAP recipients are children, people with disabilities, the elderly, or working adults who don’t make enough to make ends meet,” and that their diets are similar to those of other Americans.
That, other panelists seemed to argue throughout the day, is part of the problem.
Discussions centered on how government policies shape access and affordability of food nationwide and how school lunch directors in places like Richmond, Va., are trying to feed hungry students with more healthful options.
And then there was the ongoing debate about what is considered to be healthful in the first place.
“What I love about dietary guidelines is that they’re fiercely controversial, even though they always say the same thing,” said Marion Nestle, perhaps the country’s most quoted nutrition expert and a professor of nutrition at New York University.
By the time Donnie Smith, president and chief executive of Tyson Foods, Inc., one of the country’s largest food companies, stepped up to the plate, he was bound to face some tough questions.
“We live in an era where big food or big anything really has gotten to be a pejorative ... a lot of Americans are skeptical of industrial-scale food production; Who’s right?” asked Washington Post reporter Peter Whoriskey.
“I think big is not really the issue. The issue is, ‘Are you responsibly doing what you do?’ And I feel great about that,” said Smith, who would later talk about growing up harvesting and processing his own food in Tennessee.
He now heads a company that sells 41 million chickens a week, not to mention other livestock.
Whoriskey went on to ask how much space chickens or other animals should have while they are growing, the subject of national debate.
“I think enough is the right answer,” was Smith’s response.
Whoriskey also asked whether Americans should follow the newly suggested dietary guidelines to eat less meat and why Tyson, compared to other poultry producers, has largely stayed out of the organic meat business.
Smith said just 3 percent of his company’s product lines are Certified Organic, because “we tend to follow the consumer.”
Instead of adding more organic birds to the fleet, Smith said Tyson has grown its line of vegetarian-fed chickens that receive no antibiotics.
The company is also reducing sodium in products like lunchmeat.
A later discussion with Kathleen Merrigan, executive director of the Sustainability Collaborative at George Washington University, asked whether consumers are getting what they pay for when they buy organic. Other discussions looked at the White House’s efforts to tackle childhood obesity and the work of nonprofits that are battling hunger and creating economic opportunities for food entrepreneurs.
Vilsack also wondered during his discussion whether new federal dietary guidelines are the place for the country to have a conversation about environmental sustainability.
The concerns he says he hears from today’s farmers when he travels are “not so much about sustainability but the challenges that rural America faces and the feeling that the world is against them.”
View videos of the live interviews online at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/america-answers/wp/2015/02/24/changing-the-menu/.