Food Tank Boston picLate in November I traveled to Boston to attend Food Tank’s session on Transparency, Equity, Affordability, and Social Justice in the Food System at Tufts University.

It was an excellent series of conversations with individuals including Dariush Mozaffarian, Dean at Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, as well as Sara Bleich from the Harvard School of Public Health, Wenonah Hunter, and Frances Moore-Lappe.

And while all of the talks from this event warrant coverage, it is a really important time to focus on Dariush Mozaffarian’s talk on nutrition – and the urgent need for Americans (along with many developed countries) to focus on changing the way we eat.

Mozaffarian discussed his recent Opinion piece in the New York Times, co-authored with former Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, entitled “Our Food Is Killing Too Many of Us.”  The article succinctly lays out the stark status of Americans’ health, which is directly tied to the food that we are consuming, and notes that improving American nutrition would have the biggest impact on our health care system and its costs.  And though this stark portrayal is not new news, it will undoubtedly serve as a wake-up call to many – and that’s good.

Mozaffarian began by pointing to the positives of the modern food system – it has successfully fed many by providing cheap starchy calories to billions around the world.  Yet at the same time, it has led to a pandemic of obesity and diet-related illness. As he and Glickman note in the article, Americans are much sicker than many realize – as more than 100 million adults (nearly half of the entire adult population – now have pre-diabetes or diabetes. In addition, three of four adults are overweight or obese, which means “more Americans are sick…than healthy.” That’s a staggering condition when you consider the highly developed state of our nation.

He pointed to the financial costs, noting that these diet-driven diseases are placing a crushing burden on our economy, with the government spending $160 billion on medical care for type 2 diabetes, a figure that is increasing by 5% per year.

And importantly, Mozaffarian pointed to a key linkage, noting that nutrition is the number one cause of poor health, and the number one issue for sustainability today – as we must transition the global diet to one that not only ensures the health of people but also minimizes the food system’s destructive impact on the planet.  This theme, of course, is aptly covered in this year’s EAT-Lancet “Food in the Anthropocene” report.

He also noted that while we need to increase our level of nutrition quickly, there is no silver bullet, but rather upwards of 50 steps that need to be taken – noting that nutrition should be integrated into health care, doctors should have greater understanding of the benefits of healthy food (and behavior change), government policy should encourage innovation in healthy food, institutions should use purchasing policies to drive increased nutrition, consumers should receive greater education on healthy food, and more.  He’s right – we need a sharp increase in education on nutrition in our schools – enabling a shift to upfront prevention of health problems rather than back-end treatment of them.

He noted that the Green Revolution got us to the point where we are today very quickly – food has been bred for easy transport and longer shelf life, and as a result we have unintentionally reduced our nutrition focus.  In addition, climate change furthers the reduction in nutrition by shrinking the number of crops that are grown and distributed.

The plus side, here, as Mozaffarian points out, is that with technology and knowledge-sharing we have the ability to move away from what got us to this point very quickly as well.  And by doing so, we will aid not only the health of our people, but the health of the planet.  But we need the collective will.

In my work, I’ve seen countless examples of the impact of our modern food system that reinforces poor nutrition and exacerbates health problems.  One particular poignant moment came while I was spending a day on a truck delivering pristine fruits and vegetables to hunger-relief agencies as part of my work with Rolling Harvest Food Rescue in Pennsylvania – a non-profit dedicated to capturing excess high-nutrition produce from Bucks County (and NJ) farms and redistributing it to organizations in need.  Indeed, Rolling Harvest was created because our founder was troubled by the lack of high-quality, nutritious food in the region’s pantries – and she set about to change it.  On this day, I brought several boxes of fresh produce into a pantry, only to find that I could not store them in the site’s refrigerator – as it was completely jammed with unhealthy food items (mainly breads and pastries) donated from retail vendors.  The freezer was similarly jammed with low-nutrition items – all symptomatic of a food system that drives overproduction of unhealthy foods, and then rewards donations of such food that exacerbates the health problems of hungry individuals.  It’s a cycle that reinforces poor health outcomes and environmental costs.

In their article, Mozaffarian and Glickman point to several steps for positive change.  These include embracing the “Food is Medicine” solutions, getting insurers and hospitals to include nutrition in electronic health records, updating medical training and licensing to include emphasis on nutrition, offering patient prescription programs for healthy produce, coverage of home-delivered, medically-tailored meals for very sick individuals, pairing taxes on sugary beverages and junk food with subsidies for healthy food choices, strengthening nutrition standards in schools, additional funding for research, and more.  It’s essential that we embrace such recommendations as part of a broad shift in our diets for improved nutrition.

And as Mozaffarian points out, we should be pushing our electoral candidates to drive such change, and we should expect them all to have a food platform.

The above-mentioned Eat-Lancet report notes that “a radical transformation of the global food system is needed” – and warned that “without action, the world risks failing to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Agreement, and today’s children will inherit a planet that has been severely degraded and where much of the population will increasingly suffer from malnutrition and preventable disease.”

It’s clear that we need to change the way we eat – for the health of people and planet – quickly.

As we enter the decade of action for the SDGs, I go back to Mozaffarian’s comment that we got to this point very quickly.

It’s time for a nutrition intervention.

Let’s hope we can find the collective will to transition to a sustained, higher level of nutrition to get away from it even more quickly.