Massachusetts 2nd Congressional District Rep. Jim McGovern visits campus to talk to nutrition students: The Gatepost interviews about nutritional standards, food insecurity

Courtesy of Jim McGovern

What can students do with a food and nutrition background?

Having a nutrition background is helpful in a number of careers. If you decide to go into the healthcare sector, more and more, healthcare policies are going to be focused on nutrition as a way to prevent diseases, as well as a way to treat diseases. If you are interested in controlling healthcare costs, then you ought to be interested in promoting good nutrition among your constituents. There are a lot of people in this country who live in food deserts, who don’t have access to nutritious food, a lot of people who cannot afford to put food on the table for three meals a day. So, having a nutrition background can help you to find solutions to deal with those issues. In the insurance industry, John Hancock Insurance has a nutrition incentive component to their policies. If you join this program and consume a certain percentage of nutritious foods each month, you can actually get a rebate on your insurance every year. And it’s good business for John Hancock – it’s, “I want you to live a long, long time, because then you’ll pay me more.” So, healthy nutrition is the key to your wellbeing. I think for anyone who’s studying this, there are multiple fields you can enter, because nutrition is becoming more and more a centerpiece of everything – healthcare policy, education policy, even in the business community where you need to keep workers well and healthy. It’s become more of a priority. Food is a preventative medicine, and I want to make sure everyone has access to healthy, nutritious food – not only those who are well off, but those who are struggling as well. 

How is nutrition different now than when you were growing up?

When I was growing up, nutrition was never talked about. I grew up in a generation where you ate whatever. We were not told to pursue healthy dietary habits. That was kind of the beginning of that movement where people were eating more and more processed foods and you bought in bulk. So, as a result, many people in my generation are dealing with health issues. You have obesity, heart disease – the list goes on. But I think, increasingly – and you’re seeing this more in schools – there’s an emphasis on nutrition. It all used to be pretty unhealthy for you. Now, there’s a movement to increase the nutritional value of what students consume in schools. More and more salad bars are popping up in schools. Colleges have more of a selection in terms of what you can buy, not just food that’s nutritious, but you also have more access to healthy choices. But we’re still way behind on this issue. Nutrition is still not the centerpiece of our healthcare policies. We not properly taught nutrition in school – even our medical students are not required to take nutrition classes in order to become doctors. We don’t have a national food policy, either. We have a long way to go, but I sense that we’re getting on track to moving in the right direction. 

How do you think public schools, especially, can help students become more aware of the benefits of good nutrition?

I think it begins when you first enter school. I’m a believer that every school be required to have a kitchen, so they can prepare food on-site and have a place to store fresh fruits and vegetables. I represent a lot of schools that don’t have refrigeration, that don’t have kitchens. So, everything has to be premade, and oftentimes, it’s processed foods, so there’s no places to store peaches for a very long time, for example. One of the bills I’m trying to pass is to legislate that all schools have kitchens. I think you can integrate nutrition lessons in other subject areas – for example, in science and in math. I’ve been to schools where, when learning measurements, students are asked to look at cans of soda and measure how much sugar is in it. This will help them understand that some of these soft drinks that we consume – once in a while, it’s OK, but too much is not OK. These can be integrated into the existing curriculum. You don’t have to have a separate course. In terms of college, it’s as simple as making sure that food is labeled so that you know how many calories are in the food you’re about to buy, that there are healthy choices. … I want to increase nutritional values in the schools, in the meals we feed our kids in school, from kindergarten through college. I think that’s something we should be working toward. But it’s not only that – if you go to a hospital, oftentimes, the best you can do to treat whatever is ailing you is to change your diet. We have a majority of people who are graduating from medical school who are not even required to take a course in nutrition. It’s not a focus of their practice. That ought to change. Food is medicine, and it can not only prevent us from getting certain diseases, but it also has a healing power. I’m a big believer in food prescriptions, and insurance companies ought to cover that, but also cover dietary-specific meals when you leave the hospital so that all you have to do is heat them up and they’ll help you feel better. 

What are some things people might not know about food insecurity?

We live in a country where there are 40 million people who are designated “food insecure.” We should be ashamed of that fact. I tell people that hunger is a political condition. We have the food, we have the money, we have everything – except the political will. We live in the richest country in the history of the world – why can’t we solve anything? It’s never talked about in political debates, and it’s not the priority of Congress, and we need to change that. I’ve been fighting to make sure that one – we don’t cut benefits like SNAP, and I also believe we need to increase that benefit. The average SNAP benefit is about $1.40 per person per meal, and you can’t even buy a cup of coffee for that. And yet, we expect people to be able to feed themselves on that. It’s just not adequate. So, one of the things we need to do is look at that. The majority of people who are on SNAP do work. There’s a lie that’s being pushed that everyone on SNAP is just lazy, and that’s just not true. The bottom line is that in this country, people cannot afford food on what they get paid, so they need to rely on SNAP to be able to feed their families. We need to address this problem on a number of levels, but one is to make sure that WIC is fully funded for pregnant mothers and young babies to make sure they get the nutrition they need to grow up to be healthy. We need to make sure that schools – healthy meals need to be available there for everyone who needs them, and they need to be nutritious in content. If you go to school hungry, you can’t learn – you can’t concentrate. And that school meal can be as important an aspect of that child’s learning as a textbook. We need to make sure people understand there is a hunger and food insecurity problem in colleges. Most colleges – like Framingham State – do have food pantries, because they realize that population is one that is so vulnerable to food insecurity. They need to be fully funded and operational at a level that people have proper access to nutritional food, so that people can live healthy and productive lives.