Healthy Soil -> Healthy Food -> Healthy People -> Healthy Communities
E. coli on lettuce. Salmonella on peanuts. Corn sweetener laden with mercury. Growth hormones and antibiotics in dairy cows. Arsenic in chickens. Sub-therapeutic antibiotics in swine. … Consumers have plenty of reasons to be concerned about the safety of our food supply.
Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) asked Angie Tagtow, a registered dietitian, who has spent many years working in the public health sector, to talk with us at about the role of public policy in assuring safe, nutritious food.
After working at the Iowa Department of Public Health for 10 years, Tagtow opened a consulting firm to focus on her passion: the connection between the environment, food systems, and public health. She also is a Food and Society Policy Fellow with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy out of Minneapolis. As we began our conversation, she explained to us what she does as a Fellow. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
TAGTOW: After leaving public health, I recognized that policy is influential with all elements of our food system. So I am connecting the dots between soil, food, and health. Food, of course, is directly related to environmental issues — soil, water, biodiversity and those types of things. I do a lot of public speaking. I work quite a bit with universities, with undergraduate and graduate classes in delivering the message that there is a very important connection between the health of our environment, the health of our food system, as well as overall public health.
Being a Food and Society Policy Fellow is almost an independent study in a way, in the fact that we are located all over the country, though we do collaborate on a few projects. The most recent project that I have been involved with is to launch a National Gardening Initiative in partnership with the USDA. Five of us have been working together on doing that: Rose Hayden Smith out of University of California Davis Extension. We have Roger Doiron, who is the director for Kitchen Gardeners International out of Maine. We have Fred Bohnson, who has established church-based community gardens in North Carolina. Lisa Kivirist, who is an innkeeper, farmer and author in Wisconsin, and myself. We’re now working together as a group, bringing our different networks and skill sets to the table to help the USDA launch a national school-community-workplace-home gardening initiative next year.
BPGL: What would that look like?
TAGTOW: It’s really capitalizing on what USDA has already done with the People’s Garden Initiative, as well as what the First Lady, Michelle Obama, has done at the White House. We had the privilege of visiting the White House garden three weeks ago with the assistant executive chef, Sam Kass. And they are actually launching their own White House Food Initiative. It’s taking this new momentum in people growing their own food to a greater level from a campaign perspective, very similar to the Victory Garden initiative in the 1940s. But of course, using the latest in technology and social media to do that.
BPGL: Will you reach out to people through social media to encourage them to participate in this effort?
TAGTOW: Absolutely. And we will follow the lead of USDA, and offering our services to them to help them with a national campaign.
Funding with Transparency
BPGL: Who supports the Fellows program?
TAGTOW: The Fellows program is administered by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Support comes from a couple of different foundations. The bulk of the funding comes from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, from their food systems and health initiative that they started many years ago. The Woodcock Foundation out of New York City is providing funding for a couple of the fellows. And we did have, at one time, funding from the Fair Food Foundation, Oran Hesterman’s group out of Michigan; however, that foundation went under last year because of the Madoff scandal.
We have diverse funding for the fellows, and hopefully the funding will continue in future years.
BPGL: So often, research is underwritten by companies with a vested interest in the results — whether it’s about food or pharmaceuticals or coal. Is the Kellogg Foundation that supports the Food Policy Fellows independent of Kellogg cereals?
TAGTOW: Although it is the same company, the foundation is not influenced by the food industry part of Kellogg. The Fellows report to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, so there is really no connection between the WK Kellogg Foundation per se and the work of the Fellows.
And we wholeheartedly believe in transparency in this process. There is no influence by the Foundation over our work.
An Ecological Approach to Food and Health
BPGL: Tell us about your work as a Food and Society Policy Fellow.
TAGTOW: A lot of the work that I’ve done over the last five to seven years looks at food system perspectives as it relates to nutrition and health. After coming out of the Iowa Department of Public Health, I recognized that policy plays a huge role in people accessing food. But I’ve been able to look a bit broader at the food system and at how policy dictates everything — how food is grown, how it’s processed, packaged, transported, exported, imported and ultimately available for consumption.
BPGL: Are you talking strictly about vegetable matter, or are you also talking about meat?
TAGTOW: I’m talking about everything. Investigating how decisions we make in our current food system influence the quality, quantity, and biodiversity of the food and overall health indications for eaters has steered me toward connecting these dots. I deliver these messages not only to dietitians but to public health practitioners, the medical community, and students in all of those programs. I’ve been able to branch out and deliver more of an ecological approach to food and health to other health professionals. My one-minute elevator speech is, “The science proves that healthy soil grows healthy food. The science also proves that healthy food nourishes healthy people — and healthy people live in healthy communities.”
I’ve had the opportunity over the past few years to work quite a bit with the American Dietetic Association in advancing the concept of sustainable food systems as a core component of dietetic practice. And I’ve done a lot of work in that area. The American Public Health Association is advancing these concepts as well.
In addition, I have had the opportunity to work with farm organizations in Iowa and learn how I can contribute to meeting the needs of their members in creating a healthy food system.
BPGL: When you work with dietitians or the American Public Health Association, what can they do? What influence do they have over agricultural practices?
TAGTOW: Very good examples are the different position statements that come from the American Public Health Association [APHA], the American Medical Association [AMA], the American Dietetic Association [ADA] on the link between sustainable food systems and how it influences the nutrition and health of the population.
Each of these organizations have policy statements now that have put the tools in the back pockets of health professionals to create change in agricultural practices and the larger food system. AMA and APHA have statements about the use of growth hormones in cattle and dairy cows. They have position statements on the use of antibiotics in livestock. It’s things like that that put health professionals in a position of being able to influence policy using evidence-based information.
BPGL: Are you seeing changes in agriculture based on the policy positions of the physicians and the dietitians?
TAGTOW: Absolutely. It’s been slow, mind you, but the first step that needs to be taken is to increase awareness among those professions. I can speak to that. I was never formally trained in the role of policy and how policy influences nutrition and health. And I was never formally trained in the link between agricultural practices and its influence on nutrients and health. I think that’s a huge disservice within the formal training of health professionals and not having this broader food system framework as a context of practice.
A Recommendation to All Eaters
BPGL: In a nutshell, summarize what you feel about sustainable agriculture and health. What should we be changing about what we’re doing? On Blue Planet Green Living we talk a lot about CAFOs and the detrimental effects of the excess manure and arsenic in the chicken feed, and so on. What might you say to speak to that?
TAGTOW: I think a recommendation to all eaters, regardless of where they’re coming from, if they’re a health professional or not, is that they need to instill some critical thinking when it comes to our food system. Ask questions. Not only, Where is the food coming from? but also, How is it grown? How is it treated? What chemicals are being used? What sub-therapeutic pharmaceuticals are being used?
We need to first establish those critical thinking skills not only among the health professionals but among all eaters. That’s my first recommendation.
What I see dietitians do, especially, is to create an environment in which they can comfortably ask these questions. When we talk about issues of transparency, this is where we definitely have some issues with our professional associations and their connections to the food industry, agribusiness, and pharmaceutical companies. We need to create an environment in which we can comfortably ask the questions and engage in evidence-based dialog about the issues.
BPGL: In what setting might that take place? In public discourse? Social media?
TAGTOW: All of the above. I think it first needs to happen internally within those professional associations, for example within the American Dietetic Association there is a Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, which is the only group of dietitians within ADA that look at nutrition and health from a food systems perspective. They’re the only ones who address the role of sustainable agriculture in providing for a healthy, green, fair, and accessible food supply for all eaters. We also dabble in water security, organic farming, and agriculture policy as well. Some of these groups are emerging and forming the environments in which these discussions can take place. And they’re also influencing policy within these organizations.
BPGL: So you’re making a difference.
TAGTOW: We hope to think so. But it never fails that there’s always a new challenge on the horizon.
Organic Food Has Greater Benefits
BPGL: What’s the current challenge?
TAGTOW: The current challenge within the dietetic profession has to do with the nutritional characteristics of organically grown products versus conventional products. For years, the ADA has always framed the discussion by saying that there is no evidence to support that organically grown foods have more beneficial nutrients as compared to their conventional counterparts.
Just this year, the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group came forward and said, we need to really evaluate this. So after several months, the ADA released a Hot Topic on organic food production. They finally put in writing a position of the American Dietetic Association that says that, depending upon the growing practices, there is evidence to suggest that organically produced foods do have higher beneficial nutrients as compared to their conventional counterparts.
That in itself was a milestone. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but with an organization that has very close ties to food industry, that was a celebratory event for many of us.
Dietitians often reduce issues down to nutrients and their link to treating disease. But I think we need to emerge from the classic nutritional reductionist paradigm and think about food as a complex system and that the health of the environment in which food is grown is the better indicator for human health.
Part 1: Healthy Soil -> Healthy Food -> Healthy People -> Healthy Communities (Top of Page)