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Preaching the politics of food and nutrition

USDA Under Secretary Katie Wilson stops at ASU to talk about nutritional guidelines and food access

Woman speaking with her hands.
January 14, 2016

Few can fire up a crowd quite like Dr. Katie Wilson when it comes to talking people into eating their fruits and vegetables.

It may not sound like a sexy job, but it’s hers. And she does it well.

As the USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services under President Barack Obama, Wilson (pictured above, right) is responsible for improving the health and well-being of Americans by developing and promoting science-based dietary guidance and administering the USDA’s 15 nutrition assistance programs.

Prior to joining USDA, Wilson spent 23 years as a school nutrition director in several Wisconsin public school districts, served five years as the executive director for the National Food Service Management Institute, and was an assistant professor at the University of Mississippi.

On Thursday, Wilson visited with more than 50 students, faculty and researchers in ASU’s College of Health Solutions on the Downtown Phoenix campus to discuss how universities and educators helped shape the recently released USDA Dietary Guidelines — which are developed every five years.  

“School nutrition programs should be educational labs for children, and all of you need to be advocates for them,” Wilson said. “I encourage you all to get involved in the process because we need to hear your voice and we need your research and expertise.”

Wilson, who started her appointment on May 3, 2015, spoke to ASU Now about her surprise visit to ASU, how national nutritional policy is created and the role and function of the USDA.

Question: Your call to action for future teachers and researchers to get involved in the political process is interesting. Why is it so important for nutritional guidelines?

Answer: Writing regulation at the regulatory level means we’re only as good as what the scientists and researchers know and tell us. The field of nutrition in particular is evolving. We really don’t know a whole lot because it keeps changing, and that’s because the research keeps changing. We haven’t been dealing with nutrition as long as we have, specifically, with other kinds of issues. It’s also not a concrete issue. It’s very passionate, it’s very personal, it changes upon your demographic and age group, what your cultural preferences and experiences are. I think that if we can get people involved in the American process of writing these things, then we’re much further ahead.

Q: There are many issues behind food — social, economical, political — that go behind the making of policy. Is it the hardest aspect of your job, with so many voices and factors weighing in on the process?

A: That’s what makes it so difficult to deal with in this arena. It’s not cut and dry. It’s neither this nor that. Again, I think that’s why we have to go back to the American public and say, “That works. That doesn’t work.” What are we seeing? What are the trends? Then we have to listen to the scientists and how they have advanced nutrition to see how it reacts with the body and the whole medical aspect of it. We’ve made a lot of advances in the last 10 years, so we know a little more.

Q: There are differing opinions about funding free-meal programs. What are your thoughts on the issue?

A: I really and truly believe that anyone of us could fall on hardship tomorrow. We can’t get people back into the mainstream if they’re hungry. It just can’t be. We know that children don’t learn well if they’re hungry. The same with adults. You can’t function if you’re hungry and if you’re a single parent doing multiple jobs or managing children from multiple schools or having to figure out public transportation to get to your destination or job. If you’re hungry on top of all of that, there’s no way to figure it out. So how do we get people back on their feet and into the mainstream if they’re hungry? … We have the ability to feed everybody in this country and so we just have to figure out a way to make sure they get it.

Q: Most of your programs seem to be geared toward not only feeding children but also educating them about nutrition. We constantly hear about how America has become more obese as a nation, so when will we see that shift in behavior?

A: We have already started to see changes in schools regarding nutrition. Some of it is anecdotal; some of it is more research-based. There’s a brand-new article that just published in the American Medical Journal of Pediatrics. It shows that there’s a big difference in what they’re choosing and consuming. And they’re not being forced to. It’s a choice. We are seeing a shift. We’re seeing a difference because industry is saying, “Look, these healthy products are so popular that we’re going to put them in the commercial market.” We’re beginning to see a shift in the general population because they are asking for more information on food labels. They’re interested. The fact that we got tens of thousands of people giving their input and commenting on the USDA Dietary Guidelines for 2015 says people are paying attention. I believe people are beginning to relate good nutrition to a healthy lifestyle and longevity. We are beginning to see those changes in children, even though it takes time.

Q: It’s obvious you are passionate about what you do and teach.

A: I am. Every day I go home I know I’ve fought some battle somewhere that gave some kid access to food … and I’m OK with that.

Top photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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