January 15, 2013 by Elizabeth
Our three day nutrition policy seminar in DC was a whirlwind. My classmates and I were fortunate to listen to a range of policy experts, from capitol hill staffers to food industry representatives, from USDA and FDA officials to nutrition and public health advocates. Every speaker told us that nutrition is important and that our nation faces significant nutrition-related challenges, but few could agree on a solution. I quickly learned how critical it was to evaluate the position of each speaker, and consider questions like: Who were they representing? How might a policy change affect them or their organization?
For members of congress, it may mean more or less votes, especially with so many new conservative congressman who won their recent elections on the promise of reducing the federal government’s spending. We saw a very clear divide between liberal and conservative congressional policy advisors, which isn’t surprising given the extreme bipartisan nature of our current congress. Both sides are able to look at the same evidence that action is needed, yet spin it to appeal to their political bases. For example: one side might argue that funding prevention and public health is a worthwhile investment, as long-term healthcare savings can be seen (and improvements in other areas such as education, labor, defense, etc). The other side, however, would argue that our federal government cannot afford to fund something with limited outcome data at a time when the federal deficit is so large. Time and time again we heard the need for convincing evaluation data to support public health initiatives, regardless of funding. Our panels on the first day were somewhat frustrating, and unfortunately not surprising.
For trade and/or industry organizations, a new nutrition policy could affect business and profits. They must protect their bottom line, even when there is convincing science that a change in their business model might improve the health of Americans. We heard from people representing America’s restaurants, food industry, and school nutrition (which is often difficult to think of as a business) who were all concerned about any potential loss in profit and were armed with plenty of research to support their positions. Collaboration is the key theme we learned from this trip; we must pool together all sectors and stakeholders and start with common goals and visions before discussing policy strategies that may be difficult for some groups to support.
Finally, we also met with nutrition and public health advocates. These groups do not have to worry about their own politics or profits. They may be underfunded and considered underdogs in many nutrition-related arenas, and have to work tireless for years fighting for policy change, but they are free to speak their minds and support public health initiatives in Washington DC. However, even non-partisan advocacy groups without industry ties are still subject to bias. In fact, that was another central theme from our seminar: everyone has some type of bias, and we must be able to recognize these when considering policy proposals, evaluation or alternatives.
As many of my classmates have also stated, nutrition policy change at the federal level is incredibly complex and slow. While it fascinates me, it also frustrates me, and I salute everyone in DC who is working to support public health nutrition!