New Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Matthews Burwell was sworn in by President Barack Obama recently, and with the job she inherits a massive to-do list.
Most notably this includes the Herculean task of cleaning up former Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’ botched Obamacare rollout, but there’s more to Burwell’s new job than health care. A number of advisory boards and regulatory commissions work under the HHS umbrella, and when left unchecked, these unelected bureaucrats can create headaches for the American people.
One such board, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, has strayed far from its intended mission, and Burwell would do well to steer it back onto course.
This May 14, 2014 file photo shows then-Health and Human Service Secretary nominee Sylvia Mathews Burwell testifying on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)
The DGAC is a joint venture of HHS and the United States Department of Agriculture that convenes every five years for a series of meetings to advise those agencies on a re-write of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the government’s official dietary and nutritional recommendations. The 2015 DGAC’s next meeting takes place on July 17, just three weeks after Burwell’s swearing in.
Normally, the committee and its work fly far under the radar, but it’s hardly powerless. Its recommendations influence what appears on every “Nutrition Facts” label, and are used to determine what types and quantities of food the government purchases and serves in schools, prisons, federal workplaces, and military facilities.
The DGAC’s work is also used to help calculate allotments for SNAP (food stamps), WIC (food aid to mothers with children), and other food-benefit programs that serve low-income and disabled Americans. Perhaps most importantly, the dietary guidelines influence what Americans eat, as people assume the government is giving them sound, credible guidance.
The DGAC’s mandate is to use all available food science and data to update the recommendations in a way that represents all Americans. But this year’s committee - composed entirely of career academics who lack experience in the practical business of raising, cultivating, or producing food - is narrowing the guidelines’ focus by pushing for “plant-based” dietary guidelines.
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The committee's agenda is out of touch with the millions of Americans who will be affected by their work, and if the DGAC’s plant-based biases proceed without scrutiny from HHS and USDA, there could be serious financial and nutritional ramifications for years to come.
The “plant-based diet” endorsed by several of the professors on the committee (including Harvard’s Frank Hu, who has publicly advocated against meat consumption) is simply impractical for the vast majority of Americans - both those who depend on the government food assistance, as well as American families of diverse income levels, geographic locations, and cultural backgrounds.
Fashionable as kale and bok choy may be in the farmers’ markets of Brooklyn, they are not affordable, readily accessible, or desirable for working parents who need efficient sources of nutrients for their kids, or school districts that need to set DGAC-compatible menus on a tight budget. And although many people rely on plant-based sources for their entire protein intake, it’s not practical to ask American families to replace meat with legumes and tofu at the whim of a commission more concerned with appearances than common sense.
(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
The DGAC’s job isn’t to reset the American dinner table - rather, it’s to work within the framework of the everyday consumer’s shopping and eating habits to encourage healthier living. The best way for the professors to accomplish this job is to abandon their agenda for radical change and focus on practical, attainable solutions.
Americans aren’t going to end years of conventional dining habits in favor of a little-known committee’s proposal for plant-based living, but targeted recommendations aimed at promoting healthy, balanced, accessible diets could help improve public health and fight obesity.
Burwell isn’t going to fix Obamacare in her first month on the job, but the DGAC’s upcoming meeting should be on her radar as she prepares to collaborate on the 2015 dietary guidelines next year. By refocusing on a fair, transparent, and practical set of guidelines, the new secretary can help get HHS back toward working in the interests of public health.
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