F'd Up Food System

Dec 11, 2018

Or, listen on Spotify

The American food system is broken. It’s literally killing us. Equally upsetting is learning how taxpayers (that’s you!) are funding this toxic feedback loop. In this episode, we talk with Congressman Tim Ryan about the inner workings of what went wrong while envisioning a healthier, more sustainable future.


Jeff: So, in some ways it seems like we're getting a really great deal, but there's hidden costs. Like essentially we're paying tax dollars to subsidize the growth of cash crops, but then we're also paying on the other side to fund Medicare and Medicaid, and then we're probably also paying for our own personal health insurance. So, it feels like the taxpayer, the citizen is really losing out, but it's kind of hidden in a way.

Tim: Yeah, that's exactly it. These are hidden costs to the current food system, and it's money that could otherwise be spent on maybe a healthier food system, paying farmers to grow healthier crops, fresh produce. You can build out an urban agricultural system that could get rid of food deserts, which are urban areas primarily that don't have a grocery store within a mile or two of people's homes. You could spend that money on building out food and education and health education classes in our schools education and research that would keep us economically competitive in the country.

Jeff: Yeah, and from your perspective as a congressman making laws, where do you start to address this issue? How do you tackle it?

Tim: Well, it starts with every four or five years, Congress puts together the farm bill, and the farm bill funds all of these agricultural programs including the subsidy or crop insurance program that we currently have. There's an environmental component here, too, to moving the subsidies to growing produce, for example, making sure that investments are being made into environmentally sustainable farming techniques like no till farming, like sustainable and regenerative agriculture. You actually get a higher yield, a farmer gets more of a profit, it's better for the environment, it's better for the soil, which ultimately is the key to nutrients, and then from the regenerative agriculture piece, which is really kind of an exciting ancillary benefit, it's sequesters carbon. You're actually helping contribute to solving the global warming issue.

And so our goal should be, okay. Let's make sure we spend that money in the most cost effective way. In the military we call it that it's a force multiplier; that $1 being invested actually yields two or three different benefits, and I think moving in this direction of regenerative agriculture and a new farm bill that focuses on that stuff gives us a force multiplier because we'll save the money on the back end on the healthcare system.

Jeff: Yeah. Do you feel like you're the only one talking about it or thinking about it in Washington or is there starting to be a little bit more consensus or discussion around connecting the food system to some of these other massive salient issues like health care and the environment?

Tim: You know, it's starting to penetrate a little bit. Earl Blumenauer, who's a congressman out in Oregon, he has put together, and I'm a co sponsor of this, a new farm bill. We kicked it off a few months back, and Michael Pollan was here to help kick it off.

There are people really thinking about this, but what I'm trying to do is really bring this to the national level because I think when you're looking at moms and suburban voters and people who are into health and wellness, a lot of them aren't politically active. A lot of them don't see the connection between what they're buying, what they're eating and the national food policy, and if we can begin to get them to think of their voting, their activism in a way of put people in office that are actually going to shift this system I think it'd be a very, very powerful force in the country, and so my goal is to make sure that we bring that awareness, and then that will help push legislators and politicians to move in that direction as well.

Jeff: Yeah. I mean, if you were living in a food desert, and I have personal experience with this. My daughter plays soccer down in South Central Los Angeles, and every four to six weeks, Dad has to provide snack, and Dad always generally forgets that he has to provide snack until he gets to the game, and then I'm out on a whirlwind driving around south central looking for something that actually might have grown in the ground at some point because I'm not going to show backup with a bag of fast food but even in the grocery stores, there's really just everything has added sugar. It's just pop and chips. What are the options, for folks that are living in some of these food deserts to find real and nutritious food for their families?

Tim:  It's really, really hard, and a lot of people get their food from the corner stone, and in many instances, there aren't a lot of options there.

I think that's okay if 80% of your diet is good. The problem with a lot of these people living in these food deserts is 20% of their diet is good, and they're not getting. When you see the studies, two come out. Mark Hyman and others who talk about this. Just one helping of fruit or one helping of vegetables provide a lot of nutrition for somebody.

So those are essential components of being healthy and so we as society, need to look and say okay, this is a real problem. If we have people can't get a good meal or grocery store within two miles of their house. That's ridiculous. How do we allow that to happen and so there aren't any real options for these people. It's fast food or it's the corner store, and in both cases, it's not really cost effective in the long run either, and it's really, really unhealthy.

Jeff: Yeah, I mean we hear a lot about how politically polarized we are as a country. But as it pertains to health and wellness. It seems like even more exaggerated because I live in a world where I hear about health and wellness all the time. And you look at trends around wellness and those trends are on an upward trajectory and have been for a while.

At the same time that that's happening, you have this other trend around obesity and diabetes and chronic disease. Some of the stats are just crazy. It's like 40% of American adults are obese. 75% by 2020 will be overweight. Obesity in children has quadrupled in the last 30 years and I can't find another nation that that compares. Is the gap in health and wellness reflective in some ways of our polarized society. This is a bigger question for you I guess as a congressman. How do we bring us back together?

Tim: You're bringing up what I think is one of the great social justice issues of our time. The fact that young black kids in inner city don't have access to healthy food. That's unacceptable in 2018-'19 in the United States of America, and so this really is a social justice issue. When you look at how your diet contributes to your cognitive ability and your ability to focus and concentrate in school and then it's going to affect your grades, and there you go. Now you're often running into a downward spiral that's going to affect your ability to get a job and make a good living.

The underlying problem is the issue of connection. We've become as connected as we are with our technology and texting and snapchat and all the stuff that we have. Really there's a disconnect between the suburb and the city. There's a disconnect between urban and rural. There's a disconnect between who we are in nature. So there's a disconnect between each people. Just not being connected to each other and the way that we were 50 or 60 years ago when everybody went to church and people were part of the rotary, and everyone was active in the school.

One parent was able to stay home. That there are some luxuries that we had back then because of the economic situation that led to more and more connection. We've been disintegrated from each other, and ultimately that leaves people who drive around the problem in the city. They don't see that issue every single day because the businesses aren't downtown like they used to be, where everyone was connected into the urban core.

That's the underlying problem and we could do a whole other interview on the national policies that need to be in place for us to address them. Public transportation and walkable communities and rebuilding our downtowns and cleaning up our rivers, so we have river walks and bike trails and people can actually get back into the urban core and live there and have affordable housing, and don't have gentrification, and investments into the cities. This is part of a broader issue that needs to be solved.

We literally need to build a new bridge. You got to build the whole bridge at the same time. You can't just build the middle of the bridge. That's what has to happen. It has to be part of our food system. Be part of our urban redevelopment. It has to be part of our public transportation. It has to be part of our education system. It has to be part of our healthcare system that's integrated into our education system and into our agriculture systems. So that idea of connecting is really the great challenge of our country going into the next couple of years.

Jeff: Yeah. It is amazing. There are statistics around the people that you know. If you know people that are unhealthy or that are overweight or suffer from some form of chronic disease. The chance of you actually having that disease or suffering from those conditions is way, way, way higher. If you're in a community and you have connection with people that are living a healthy lifestyle, the chances of you also living a healthy lifestyle are also way higher. Again this is creating a wedge between the haves and the have nots, or however you want to look at it.

I think this is the great challenge of mankind is are we going to find a way to come together and connect, to solve the salient problems of our time. Because if we don't, I don't know where we're going. So it's amazing to hear you talking from a infrastructure perspective, how we actually create more community and connection and move people more into public life where they have that ability to connect. Not just with people that share their own values and passions and interest, but also with people that aren't like-minded.

Tim: Yes. That is the great challenge. I think it starts by listening to each other. Really putting yourself in someone else's shoes.

Jeff: Yeah. So, I think it's easy in the face of huge enormous problems to feel paralyzed, and also feel like this is something that's happening to us, and we have no control. But, we do have some control on a daily basis. You know, you're a parent. You are on planes traveling back and forth all over the country, but particularly between Ohio and DC. How do you provide healthy food and a healthy environment for your children? Just what do you make them for lunch? Or, how do you navigate providing some of these things for your own children?

Tim: Well, it's not easy. I think that's where you start. You recognize that this is a challenge and you have to intentionally do it. So, we, my wife and I ... And I'm gone three, four nights a week, so my wife carries most of the burden here. What we do is on Sunday, we make lunches for the first three days of the week, and it's fruits and vegetables, and lean meats, and kind of some nuts that kind of thing. And we try to make sure, okay, they're going to get one solid meal with a lot of color and produce in it, and then usually a dinner at night that consists of hopefully some lean meats and some vegetables, and something pretty basic. I mean, something that pretty much everybody does. But, that lunch really, for me is like okay, these kids are going to eat this stuff. They like this stuff.

My wife does a really good job of getting the fruits out. She puts the fruits like the apples and pears and that stuff, out so people ... the kids will just walk by and grab it. And then in the fridge, with the berries and stuff, she takes them out and washes them and then puts them in a colander, so you could just stick your hand in the refrigerator and grab a handful of blueberries or blackberries and raspberries or something. So, kind of keep that stuff accessible.

For me, on the road, it's ... You know, we started buying these bars. I do some of the light hacks that Mark Hyman taught me, like keep some almonds around, and keep the little like almond butter and peanut butter with a little bit of honey in it, those packets. I just had one this morning. It's hard though. Like, you're starving. Sometimes I don't eat right, and I go to the Reagan Airport in DC and it's Five Guys hamburgers, it's like smelling them, like ... I'm like a cartoon character floating through the airport.

Jeff: I can see it. I can see it.

Tim: ... smelling ... smelling the Five Guys. And you know, I mean, let's be honest, sometimes I go over there and I get it, and I take the bread off, and I just eat kind of low carb style.

Jeff: Yeah.

Tim: ... and try to do that when I'm out and about, and try to do the kind of the paleo or keto or whatever they're calling it these days.

Jeff: Yeah, but these are the things, right? These are the hacks that you have to apply to your own life. Until there's fresh fruits and vegetables on every corner, you have to take some of the personal responsibility to set yourself up, to live a healthier lifestyle and to feel good.

Tim: Yeah. And like I said, I mean, 80%, you know. Let's not get nutty here. Let's not act like you got to be perfect. You know? I swing by and get ice cream for the family.

Jeff: Sure.

Tim: Even the dogs. I get a couple that the dogs will eat the ice cream. And so, it doesn't have to be miserable. A lot of this food, nowadays, if it's done properly, it tastes good. How do we get it into the schools? How do we get it into all the neighborhoods? How do we teach people how to cook again? All of these things are a part of building out. That's why I think a really fun opportunity is with urban ag, a neighborhood kitchens, kitchen incubators. There's a lot of ... you know, urban gardens where you actually could create afterschool jobs and summer jobs. Hoop houses, you can extend the growing season. I mean, there is a whole urban (agriculture) initiative that is just waiting to happen.

And then, you'll see in these neighborhoods, there'll be a neighborhood coffee shop. There'll be a neighborhood bar. There'll be ... kind of like the old school. The guy who sold the meat. There was the butcher shop, the barbershop. There was the local corner store. Everybody had a garden. [inaudible] on and on, but that's ... When you talk about walkable communities, more dense communities, people are driving less. That's a health component. That's an environmental component. So, all of these things can happen.

Jeff: Yeah. I love that vision. That's just a wonderful vision for our country at large, but also for some of the towns that have undergone a lot of economic stress. I mean, I know that, in your district, GM just cut a lot of jobs. Boy, if you could come in there with a fresh vision, to revitalize some of these communities in a healthy way, I mean, that's a game changer.

Tim: Yeah. I mean, that's my dream. That's my vision, is to say, okay in three years, we want every dilapidated home and commercial property gone and reinvested in with a national urban agricultural initiative. And we're not going to tell you what to grow or how to grow it or anything else. You decide what you want to do. Some of it will be in Minnesota, and some of it will be in Ohio, and some of it will be in Mississippi. But, we're going to clean every neighborhood up in America. We're going to get this urban (agriculture) program.

We could implement this vision that we have of cleaning these communities up and plugging them back into the global economy, and to the automation and growth sectors of the economy, because their view of the world's going to slowly change because it looks better, and they feel better, and they're eating better, and they're healthier. That all is a virtuous cycle that we need to plug people back into.

Jeff: Yeah. This is such a positive vision for America, Tim. Can you get it across?

Tim: Yeah.

Jeff: Are people ready to hear that message?

Tim: I think so. What's the alternative? You know? I mean, we've tried the cut taxes for the wealthy and hope it trickles down. We've tried just government. Bobby Kennedy used the word that just love, watching his anniversary a few months back, was imagination.

Jeff: Yeah.

Tim: Let's have some imagination on how we solve these problems. We're a very creative species. When you look at technology, and you look at businesses, and you look at artists, let's apply our human imagination to our public problems that we have, and we could solve them. To me, that's really the call for the next generation, of how we fix some of these major challenges that we have.

Jeff: Yeah. All right. God bless you, man. Thanks for fighting a good fight.

Tim: You got it. Keep it up.

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