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Ohio Democrat Pushes Healthy Eating as Fiscal Issue

Ryan, right, with Rep. Lois Capps, is working to get his colleagues to equate healthy eating with saving money on government health care costs. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Rep. Tim Ryan’s ideal world would contain children snacking on salad at the school lunch table, local farmers supplying organic fruit to universities and community gardens replacing even the most dilapidated urban centers.  

“The Real Food Revolution: Healthy Eating, Green Groceries, and the Return of the American Family Farm” offers a blueprint for federal policies the Ohio Democrat believes could open a pathway to such a society.  

He writes in the 201-page book that he wants Congress to force truth in food-labeling measures, and jabs at Kansas Rep. Mike Pompeo, who introduced a bill that would block federal or state action to require labeling of foods made with genetically engineered ingredients.  

“Yes, in 2014 there is legislation being presented to hide information from the public,” Ryan writes. “And we wonder why Congress’s approval rating is so low.”  

(After the book was published, voters in California and Colorado actually rejected such labeling efforts this fall, while an Oregon ballot measure that narrowly failed is tied up in court .)  

The congressman suggests the Department of Agriculture could give grants to school districts to install salad bars and save on Medicaid costs, admitting it may sound wacky but adding, “In my estimation, we need a garden in every school yard, a salad bar in every school lunch room and a healthy kitchen in every schoolhouse.”  

He outlines urban farming potential — “[l]et’s reclaim depressing, blighted, and crime-ridden blocks and convert them into usable land” — and, despite confessing at one point he is “addicted” to chicken wings and ice cream, says his aim is to raise awareness of “what exactly this food is doing to us.”  

“The Real Food Revolution” follows a similar flow to Ryan’s first book, “A Mindful Nation,” which encouraged people to take up meditation and yoga — but it has a more aggressive call to action, with even starker consequences if the country ignores his warnings.  

He urges people who share his ideals to ask for a 15- to 20-minute meeting with their congressman (“Do NOT take no for an answer.”) or organize using Facebook (“Be a pain in the butt!”).  

Are the Democrat’s ideas too granola, so to speak?  

Ryan told CQ Roll Call he views the soon-to-be all-Republican-led Congress as providing him an opportunity to argue that going after the kinds of change he advocates for would bring down health care costs and could make the nation more competitive if lawmakers promote programs for “healthy and energetic students and workers.”  

Still, Ryan already is considering taking his ideas elsewhere, or at least statewide. As he told CQ Roll Call recently, he may opt to challenge Republican Sen. Rob Portman in 2016. He sees the ideas in his book as a potential platform. “The Senate provides a bigger microphone to help shape and move the national discussion,” Ryan said. “[Running] would provide an opportunity to stoke the ideas that can potentially change the trajectory of the health and well being of our citizens and our competitiveness in the world.”  

While Ryan does not go easy on his fellow lawmakers, he notes that as a member of Congress he relishes conflict in the Capitol because “this is how great change can take place.”  

This is a wonky book filled with terms and asides Ryan’s fellow lawmakers will appreciate — from calling Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan a “rock star” for her work on the farm bill and giving a shoutout to Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., to at one point declaring, “[I]t’s the food, stupid!”  

Ryan writes at length about his opposition to the farm bill passed earlier this year because it did not “come close to initiating the kind of reform that I would like to see, given the fact that our food system is yielding so many unhealthy outcomes.” That would include more money for environmental protection and for organically grown and non-genetically modified food. He details how famed slow food movement chef Alice Waters helped the Berkeley school district hire a director of nutrition services. (He writes, “I’d like to see one of those in every school district, wouldn’t you?”)  

Agribusiness is a target, as he laments that over the past decade, 62 percent of farms collected no subsidy at all. Ryan writes that 80 percent of farmers from 1995 to 2012 received, on average, $604 per year. “A lobbyist can spend that on dinner in one night,” he scoffs, adding that $111.5 million was spent by agricultural industries in lobbying in 2013 as the farm bill was up for debate.  

“If it looks like monopoly and smells like manure, you know it stinks for our farmers,” Ryan writes.  

The book includes a “full disclosure” paragraph on page 31 noting that while he’s taken donations from the food industry, “Campaign contributions do not influence the way I think or the way I vote.” (Records analyzed by Open Secrets show that, of the $1.1 million he raised last cycle, $10,000 came from the agriculture business, which would not rank in the top 20 of industries giving to his campaign and leadership PACs.)  

He describes himself as “waist-deep in the food issue” and repeatedly makes the point that sustainable farming and better eating habits can save the nation in health care costs.  

“[T]he food system is not achieving its aim of fostering our health and well-being and that of our environment. I’m sorry. It’s just not. End of story. I’m not going to debate that anymore,” Ryan writes, rattling off statistics about high diabetes rates and how the average weight has increased by 20 pounds since the 1960s, while the average height only is an inch taller.  

Not to mention that half of people in the United States drink sugary drinks, Ryan notes, with at least 5 percent of the population drinking four cans of soda per day. He rails against “fake food,” and describes in intricate detail what genetically modified corn can do to the liver, and how antibiotics being given to animals to increase profits affect the food chain.  

He advises people to avoid foods with heavy processing or artificial flavors that cause inflammation, which can lead to disease, eat whole fruits instead of sugars, and only free-range, grass-fed beef.  

Just as Ryan brought meditation to the Capitol with the Quiet Caucus, he is considering efforts like bringing in celebrity chefs to showcase organic cooking, or urging members to take part in Meatless Mondays.

Ryan, 41, uses his wife and their children (including newborn son Brady) to illustrate his points, and highlights recipes that graced his grandmother’s dinner table, fresh from the garden that was just a short bike ride away from his family home in Niles, Ohio, growing up.

“It may be hard for us adults to change what we buy for our kids and how we eat, but we have to, for the sake of the next generation,” he writes.

The celebrities in this book include Waters, Michael Pollan, Tom Colicchio and former University of Miami basketball player Will Allen. Former President Bill Clinton appears on the first page of praise, calling the book part of a “much-needed prescription to help transform our country’s food systems and improve our well-being.”

But the real heroes are the family farmers, with Ryan using his district’s Youngstown as a model for what could come to pass, and lauding local butcher Danny Catullo as on the cutting-edge (“no pun intended”) for selling meat raised under humane practices.  

Ryan said in an interview he equates his food and meditation books, and thinks they can help integrate these ideas into the political process and force the government to slowly scale up.  

“Healthy food in a school is not a partisan issue, and there’s an opportunity for average people to say ‘This is something I’m interested in’ and find common ground,” Ryan says. “This isn’t the first big issue that Congress would be last to the dance on, but it’s got to happen.”  

Related: Congressman Considering Rob Portman Challenge A Meditation on the Quiet Time Caucus Ohio Democrat Concentrates on Keeping Mindfulness Around Ryan to Congress: Slow Down Bellantoni's 2013 Mindful Magazine Profile of Ryan The 114th: CQ Roll Call's Guide to the New Congress Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.

Topics: farm-bill members