Legislative Lessons

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January 12, 2013 by Sarah S.

As I consider all of the information, opinions, and advice that I absorbed over our three days in DC, I am simultaneously both more cynical and more optimistic about the future of nutrition knowledge and action in the US. To get my negative observations out of the way before moving on to more positive thoughts:

Almost every speaker continually insisted on the fact that our nutrition policies should be based on the best science available and those from government agencies largely agreed that current policies are already supported by this evidence. However, a statement from a USDA official communicated clearly that this is unlikely to be the case both now and in the future when he said, “It’s important to consider how research is conducted because we don’t know who will be in office when the results of studies come out.” On the one hand, he was asserting that performing unbiased, well-designed research and evaluation is important. But, his acknowledgment that the country’s political situation will determine whether research is accepted or ignored communicated to me that the “best science available” is just one of the many factors influencing “science-based policy.”

I was also struck by just how much power a few select people can have in changing policy, which could be either good or bad, depending on your views on any given issue. For example, I agree that improving school meals and physical activity needed to occur and believe that the new school meals standards and the Let’s Move initiative are important tools for much-needed environmental change in our nation’s schools. However, I was a bit troubled by the fact that everyone working with these policies spoke about how everything happened quickly (and sometimes without sufficient funding for implementation or plans for evaluation) once the First Lady got involved while other important policy issues supported by equally sincere and informed yet less powerful citizens, languish in Congress for years, even with lots of evidence and planning behind them. While this works in nutrition advocates’ favor in this case, it could be equally detrimental in the future if another important political figure strongly supports a cause that could result in set-backs for public health and nutrition. In a similar vein, it also worries me that so many of our speakers so non-chalantly commented that the legislative process is becoming less and less standardized.

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But, on a more positive note, I gleaned many lessons about working with organizations and people that I will use in the future, regardless of the setting. A few of the main themes of the seminars that the class identified at the end of the trip included transparency, collaboration and evaluation. While many of us got the feeling that the speakers may have been saying these buzzwords were important without actually practicing them, their constant use did make me consider how I could sincerely put them into practice. This trip made me think about how I, as I move out into the nutrition arena, must make sure that I hold my knowledge and beliefs tightly, but not so blindly as to refuse to listen to other perspectives or to change them if evaluation or new scientific knowledge proves them incorrect.

I also perceived the importance of positivity when working for or dealing with change. The discussions surrounding the new school food guidelines made me think about how, as a future leader, I must remember that my attitude toward challenges will help determine whether my organization embraces change and finds way to make it happen or whether everyone drags their feet, making the process less productive and more stressful for everyone involved.

Although I left D.C. feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the enormity of the policy work that awaits my fellow public health nutrition colleagues and me, I do feel more knowledgeable about the issues of the day and the various stakeholders that care deeply about them.

And, to add some humor to your day: I found this version of the “food pyramid” in the Smithsonian’s food history exhibit. Dog owners will probably agree that this might be the most realistic version yet to be developed!

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