Over a decade ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) led the effort to develop a comprehensive federal food plan with the potential to reduce healthcare spending and improve the health of millions of Americans — if only anyone cared enough to fully implement it.
Next week, President Biden will become the first president in 50 years to resurrect the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health. He should use this event as an opportunity to give teeth to the CDC’s Federal Food Service Guidelines, thereby immediately achieving many of his ambitious goals for the conference and advancing a decade-long effort by the CDC to improve food service.
Issuing an executive order requiring the implementation of food service guidelines throughout the federal government would be the perfect capstone to the event and prove that the federal government is willing to do its part when calling for transformative change.
These guidelines are a policy framework to guide the billions of dollars the federal government spends on food procurement each year. They provide a manual to help agencies and federal food vendors intentionally shift menus and procurement practices toward healthier and more sustainable options.
Improving the federal food service would have a huge impact: The federal government employs over 4 million military and civilian personnel and also supplies millions of meals across the country to schoolchildren, people incarcerated in federal prisons and patients who receive care at federal medical facilities. Unfortunately, since its first release in 2011, the guidelines have remained largely voluntary and only limited adoption has occurred across multiple administrations.
Just a stroke of the president’s pen could reduce the incidence of heart attacks, strokes and cases of diabetes, heart disease and stroke-related deaths of his federal employees, achieving lifetime healthcare cost savings of more than $500 million.
This action by the Biden administration could also spur job growth. According to a report published last year by the Rockefeller Foundation, if schools sourced merely 30 percent of their food from local and regional producers, it would create 19,552 new local jobs equivalent to generating $971 million in annual wages. That same report found that replacing the 20 most commonly purchased conventional school meal produce items with their certified USDA organic counterparts would decrease pesticide use by 567,000 lbs. Substituting 25 percent of meat purchases by the USDA Foods program in favor of plant-based proteins would save 4 million metric tons of CO2-eq annually, equivalent to taking 864,343 passenger vehicles off the road.
These are political wins as well as policy gains that reflect the powerful impact of the food system on human and planetary health.
And President Biden should take notice: He can further advance his administration’s goals for climate, health and other priorities by coupling the food service guidelines with values-based procurement requirements such as the Good Food Purchasing Program, which calls for the support of advancing equity, strengthening local agriculture and food economies, ensuring nutrition security, supporting the food production and service workforce and protecting animal welfare.
Not only would an executive order be consistent with the goals of several previously issued executive orders (such as E.O.s 13985, 14057 and 14030), but the CDC has already done the initial work of developing and updating its guideline recommendations. The government will always spend money on procurement, and every dollar it spends and every meal it serves should be directed to fulfilling our health, climate, social and economic goals. Food service guidelines are the low-hanging fruit.
Changing the way the government purchases food will not be an easy or seamless process — the CDC didn’t adopt its own policy until 2018 — but it is to say that food procurement is an untapped component of meeting our collective nutrition and sustainability goals.
If the guidelines had been mandated 10 years ago when the CDC released its first report, we would already be reaping significant health and climate benefits today. We’ve provided our federal agencies with a decade to adopt these expert policies, and that grace period has run its course. It is time for the federal government to get its own house in order.
Closing the historic return of the White House Conference on Hunger, Nutrition, and Health with an executive order mandating the CDC’s guidelines would deliver President Biden a big win for his health and climate agenda. And with the current state of the looming climate crisis, further delays are not an option.
William H. Dietz, MD, Ph.D., is the chair of the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at The George Washington University. He is also the Sumner M. Redstone Center Chair and director of the STOP Obesity Alliance..