By Eve Laabs, IATP Food and Health Program Intern
Health professionals today have the monumental task of improving public health within an overwhelmingly toxic food environment, but by finding a unified voice as members of professional associations, they can exert a significant force in creating positive changes in our food system. There is strength in numbers here – the combined membership of the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics now approaches 500,000. This figure balloons further with the inclusion of public health professionals, planners, naturopaths, and even students. Comprised of members who serve on the front lines to protect the nation’s health every day, these associations’ positions can be keenly influential in shaping policy reform. This was the theme in the April 19th webinar, Creating Just and Healthy Food Systems: The Role of Professional Associations.
IATP’s David Wallinga, MD provided the big-picture view: the current obesity epidemic lies against a larger backdrop of a food system that is unhealthy, unjust and unsustainable. Powerful commercial interests control 40 to 70 percent of major food system sectors, creating an overall sense of inertia. Unsurprisingly, the food system is developing into a hot-button issue. Public awareness of issues ranging from antibiotics in livestock feed, pesticide use and fair labor practices is rapidly growing. Active engagement in these topics can be a magnet by which professional associations attract new and young members.
Wallinga acknowledged that the shift away from the old thinking that diet and health are a consequence of individual behavior is a positive sign; the health community now leans toward the notion that diet and health are a function of one’s food environment. He encouraged health professionals to contemplate the issues that exist even further upstream, such as farm and food policy and infrastructure development. He praised the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Nursing Association, the American Planning Association, and the American Public Health Association for initiating a collaborative process in June of 2010 to develop “Principles of a Healthy, Sustainable Food System.” The AMA has a sustainable food policy of its own that serves both as a pledge and as a set of guiding principles for the association’s activities.
Registered dietician Angie Tagtow demonstrated how one could advance sustainable food and water systems within a professional association through her own experience as a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. As members become increasingly engaged, Tagtow believes the concepts and practices of sustainable food and water systems will become better integrated not only into the association, but the profession itself.
IATP Food and Community Fellow Cheryl Danley shared her experience organizing and engaging young professionals in food advocacy work within the national association known as Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences (MANNRS). As an agricultural economist and a professional of color, Danley decided to work with agriculturalists in an organization representing students of color and mentor them to serve in their community. She realized that professional associations welcome opportunities to bring in fresh ideas when help is provided in key areas such as creating content for their websites, developing workshop topics, or securing speakers for conferences.
Here are some ways in which you can take action:
- The first step towards growing awareness is learning the facts – subscribe to newsletters or join specialty groups such as the Hunger & Environmental Nutrition dietetic practice group.
- If your organization has not yet adopted a healthy, sustainable food policy, advocate for one, or encourage official endorsement of an existing one such as “Principles of a Healthy, Sustainable Food System.”
- Professional associations have conservative tendencies. Members should develop communication outlets through which they can safely challenge the association’s positions and bring in new ideas.
- Show your individual support for important public policy reforms such as the Farm Bill and the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act through engagement with campaigns such as IATP’s Healthy Food Action and those run by other organizations working to create a healthy sustainable food system.
- Find key allies and establish partnerships to advance policy reforms. They can be community organizations, local schools, or companies.
- Promote cross-association collaboration by creating umbrellas of “foodie” health professionals such as the APHA’s Food and Environment Working Group.
- Encourage participation of professional associations in cross-sector coalitions such as the Healthy Farms, Healthy People Coalition which works at the intersection of food, health and agriculture.