According to the USDA, if Americans ate healthier, at least $71 billion per year could be saved in medical costs, lost productivity and lost lives. In fact, the food we eat is affecting our nation’s health to a surprising degree in the form of diet-related disease. Today, the typical American diet – high in saturated fats, sugars and sodium – is a contributor to four of the six leading causes of death and a risk factor for what has now become a nationwide epidemic – obesity.
Recently, a cadre of notable professors, chefs and policy leaders have spoken up about the dangerous links between our food and diseases like obesity, from Bill Clinton to Dr. Barry Popkin. Even Tom Vilsack has remarked that he would like to steer food policy under the umbrella of health care reform and just last week Michelle Obama spoke of reducing processed foods in our diets. But where is the voice of America’s #1 doctor, the Surgeon General?
As the Obama administration began to take shape at the start of the year and whispers circulated over the naming of the next Surgeon General, I couldn’t help but wonder what this post is really about and how seemingly appropriate its station could be in the widespread communication of food sustainability and health to the mainstream.
According to the government website of the Surgeon General, the position is part of the Office of Public Health and Science within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the office holder seeks to be “America’s chief health educator by providing Americans the best scientific information available on how to improve their health and reduce the risk of illness and injury.”
Unfortunately, our chief health advocate has been somewhat invisible or inaudible at least, some may argue, since the days of C. Everett Koop.
It is now time to revitalize this invaluable tax-supported post in our government and choose an intelligent agenda for the next Surgeon General. Although the sustainable-food movement has been gaining in leaps and bounds at the moment (e.g. White House organic garden), by tapping the top advocate for public health to join the squad, this base can be solidified to tackle issues from a government-backed, mainstream platform – at least on the health front. How better to contain the critics who profess that sustainable food advocates have a scattered and extreme agenda?
And there is no better time than now to have a Surgeon General dedicate resources to a healthier food supply. Some have now deemed obesity the #1 threat to American health (nearly 2 out of 3 Americans is either overweight or obese).
There are plenty of innovative and effective initiatives the next Surgeon General can roll out to inject techniques of sustainable food into an agenda combating diet-related lifestyle problems. Many of these ideas have been shuttled back and forth among food policy advocates, but by being heard through the office of America’s #1 doctor, awareness and change would be better guaranteed.