by Brandon Fox
First Lady of Virginia Dorothy McAuliffe and Marion Nestle, award-winning author of "Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health," "Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety" and "What to Eat," among other books, and New York University’s Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition and food studies, agree about a lot of things.
Dr. Nestle was the keynote speaker at this week’s Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth’s Weight of the State conference, and the two women had a chance to sit down to talk about agriculture, food systems, food politics and its effect on children. Here are just a few of the things they discussed.
Style: When I look at your [Dorothy McAuliffe’s] work, I see you’ve really focused on childhood hunger — that’s been a priority for you since you’ve been at the Executive Mansion. And it seems, after reading your [Marion Nestle’s] books … you focus on the politics surrounding obesity. The two seem to be at opposite ends.
Marion Nestle: I do both. I don’t see them as separate, because both are problems of inequity, problems in resources, education — food — and they both result from the same, as I like to put it, dysfunctional food systems. … If everybody had enough money, the problems would be much smaller. But money is unequally distributed, more so now than at any time since the 1920s.
Dorothy McAuliffe: We talk about hunger and obesity in the same breath. When you look at this idea, the theme here today [at the conference] and through my office at Virginia Nutritional Divide … it’s a moving target, in a way, when we’re talking about childhood nutrition, childhood malnutrition, obesity and hunger. To me it’s all part of the same conversation around food access and food distribution.
MN: We have a situation now with the federal government. It’s borderline dysfunctional — if not totally dysfunctional. You can do things at the state and local level that you can’t possibly get done at the federal level while we have a congress devoted to blocking everything. … It gives the states enormous opportunity to try and take care of people and local communities.
With those state opportunities, can you tell me about some of the things you’re working on [in Virginia]?
DM: We have been able to hit the ground running as of last year, and we focused a lot on summer-meal service, building new meal sites for kids across the commonwealth.
We put a big push as well on the Community Eligibility Provision [a USDA program that helps high-need schools feed the entire student body at no cost]. … It’s a really important to increase those participation numbers and also reduce stigma for the kids so that everybody is at the same place at the table in the school cafeteria.
We were just talking to Dr. Nestle about the $8.8 million grant we have from the USDA for a demonstration project here in Virginia [that looks] at schools as food hubs — it’s a important opportunity for year-round feeding for those high-need kids. And those high-need numbers are growing and growing in this country and in Virginia. Fifty-one percent of the kids in our schools are free-and-reduced-lunch kids.
MN: It’s just astonishing.
DM: We had legislative success with the governor’s budget including an alternative breakfast model for those schools willing to try [it]. We can provide a little bit of funding at the state level to increase breakfast participation.
Have the policies of the last 10-15 years or so created this or is this a problem we’ve always had?
MN: We’ve always had it. But when the income gap wasn’t as wide as it is today, the numbers were smaller. The numbers are going up and that’s alarming for a country that has the kind of resources it has to have any kids hungry. It’s just wrong.
DM: To really break the cycle of poverty, we need to make sure our children are educated and they come to school ready and able to learn and take advantage of the investment we’re making in their education — $5.5 billion in the commonwealth of Virginia is invested in education every year.
MN: And it would be nice if it did some good.