When they’re not in Washington, most politicians schmooze with deep-pocketed execs and local business leaders (and, of course, kiss the occasional baby in a crowd). Tim Ryan hangs out with Michael Pollan, vegan food guru Kris Carr, and functional medicine pioneer Mark Hyman, MD.
The Ohio congressman previously known for his devotion to meditation brings up conversations he’s had with each of those healthy food activists in his new book, The Real Food Revolution, which outlines the many problems he sees with the country’s food system and his plan for fixing it (with your help).
“Working on the mindfulness book, I read a lot about health issues and the effects of stress on our health, and just time and time again, I kept running into the fact that, yeah, stress was terrible, but it was also food and diet and nutrition that were a big issue, too,” he explains. And, of course, he says he was constantly running into healthcare spending issues and how much horrible food habits were costing the country in the long run. “We’re really sick as a country,” he says.
After Dr. Hyman helped Congressman Ryan’s wife with major health problems using functional medicine, his journey into the wellness world began, and it ultimately led to his taking up a new cause he dubbed the “Real Food Revolution,” which includes farm bill reform, GMO labeling, and much more. “The important thing to figure out is what the real causes of this broken system are, and it’s about not just identifying what the problems are, but also what the path forward for us is.”
We asked him to elaborate on what that might look like, in case you’re interested in walking it with him.
You’re tapped into this circle of activists and wellness experts, but is it hard to get the average person who’s not from that world to care about food issues and food policy? No, I don’t think so at all. I don’t think people have connected our sicknesses we have in our country to our food policies and our agricultural policies. What I’m trying to do is really connect the dots for people to say, “Oh, I get it.” More and more people are recognizing that this is an issue, whether it’s what we’re feeding kids in our schools or what’s cheap or the healthcare issue.
What’s cheap is a big issue, because many people think healthy food is by definition going to be more expensive. The reason we have cheap, highly processed foods is because we subsidize crops that make it easy to make cheap, highly processed foods. The cost of the products—whether it’s a box of crackers or cereal or what’s perceived to be a healthy protein bar—is cheaper than it really should be. And it doesn’t reflect long-term consumption of these products and the ill effects on our health and what that costs us. If we really want to move the needle on it, we’ve got to change the public policies and shift the subsidies. If we want more fresh fruits and vegetables and less high fructose corn syrup, then we need to shift the policies to reward farmers for growing the kind of food that will keep us healthy and that is really medicine…and it will also make the food cheaper and more accessible to people.
What about what just happened in Colorado and Oregon with voters rejecting GMO labeling? Everyone knows it was the result of massive ad spending by Monsanto and other companies, but how can you compete with that? It really has to be grassroots and neighborhood by neighborhood. People hosting food documentary viewings at their houses, for example. It’s an educational process with local officials and state officials, and really over time educating people so that they know what needs to be done. If the food industry comes in with all this money, they’re going to influence the election, but if people know what they’re talking about and understand the issues deeply and are getting the information from someone they trust…This has got to be a grassroots movement where we educate people and have them educate their friends and family.
In the book you identify four major policy changes that will help shift the food system in a healthier direction. But what can the average person do right now if they feel called to action? It depends on who they are. If they’re excited about the school programs, if they’re interested more in local, sustainable agriculture and starting a cooperative locally, they need to go down that road. Whatever excites them, whatever inspires them, that’s where the juice is, that’s where the energy is, and where they’re going to make a difference. You don’t have to change the world, you just have to make some improvements in your community. And if other people are doing that in thousands of communities around the country, then we have a movement on our hands. —Lisa Elaine Held
For more information, check out The Real Food Revolution