USDA Hires Environmentalist Food Activist to Oversee Dietary Guidelines

Angela Tagtow calls for ‘social justice’ in food policy

USDA intern / AP
July 10, 2014

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has hired an environmental nutrition consultant to oversee its Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which has already faced criticism for introducing climate change into nutrition policy.

Angela Tagtow was named executive director of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, which oversees the committee in charge of creating new federal nutrition standards.

A "good food" activist, Tagtow founded Environmental Nutrition Solutions, whose mission is to change the food system by making it more "sustainable, ecologically sound, [and] socially acceptable." She formerly was the endowed chair for the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture.

Tagtow explained her definition of a sustainable food system during a guest lecture at Utah State University in 2011.

"A sustainable and resilient food system conserves and renews natural resources, advances social justice and animal welfare, builds community wealth, and fulfills the food and nutrition needs of all eaters now and in the future," she said.

Tagtow also authored a "Good Food Checklist For Eaters," which encourages individuals to pledge to promote "green" food habits, such as organizing a "food film festival," or "food book club."

Items to accomplish at home include "stay current on food-related news and articles," buy food from farmers markets and road stands, and reserve a plot in a community garden.

"Select more locally grown fruits and vegetables and less meat to conserve natural resources and energy," one item reads.

The list also encourages establishing a "Victory Garden," completing a Master Gardener course, making cloth napkins, using reusable bags at the grocery, and allowing food stamps at farmers markets.

The list is also heavy on encouraging composting, whether at home, school, or in the community.

Tagtow wants schools and offices to be "fast-food free zones," and suggests that schools plant orchards.

At work the checklist advises to "support breastfeeding coworkers," and "share information on recyclable disposables in place of foam and plastic."

Tagtow explained that she takes an "ecological approach" to food and nutrition in a 2009 paper she coauthored with Alison Harmon, an assistant professor of foods and nutrition at Montana State University.

"Dietitians must ask: How can an ecological approach assist in achieving the American Dietetic Association’s vision to optimize the nation’s health through food and nutrition?" Tagtow wrote.

"If dietitians are empowered to be the nation’s food and nutrition leaders, dietetic education and practice must encompass the ecological, political, social and economical implications of a healthy diet," she added.

The paper called for a sustainable food system that decreases dependence on oil and gas, and policy changes within federal programs, such as the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program.

"Here’s a great idea. Go to your local state health department that administers WIC and talk to them about ‘What can we do to increase fruit and vegetable consumption among WIC participants? Can we have the policy to support them using their WIC cash value vouchers for fruit and vegetables at farmers markets?’" Tagtow explained during the lecture at Utah University.

"Policy dictates everything" she said during the lecture. She also called for "food system reform" to accompany the Affordable Care Act.

"When we make decisions about how food is grown and what food is grow, the quality and quantity and biodiversity of food that’s grown here in this country, it directly affects the status of our food system," she said. "And the status of our food system directly affects our healthcare system."

"Do you think healthcare reform is really going to be as effective as it could be if we had food system reform as well?"

Tagtow’s views are in line with many members of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC), which is placing a strong emphasis on environmentalism and climate change as it crafts the new nutrition standards for 2015.

In previous meetings the committee has suggested Americans move to more "plant-based diets," and lifestyle interventions to fight obesity.

The committee, which will hold its next meeting on July 17, has been criticized as politically motivated and for putting environmentalism over nutrition science. Released next year, the guidelines will be used to craft policy for federal nutrition programs.

Jeff Stier, a Senior Fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, said Tagtow’s appointment is troubling, and a sign that the government is doubling down on infusing environmentalism into the guidelines.

"Here you’ve got the USDA’s top person on nutrition education who has made a career out of making sustainability central to how we eat, rather than healthy diets," he said.

"It’s not just that Angela Tagtow is sympathetic with this point of view—which would be problematic—she’s a cheerleader for these points of view," Stier added.

"Her appointment sends the clearest message we have yet of which direction the USDA is going, political science or nutritional science," he said. "And certainly Tagtow comes from an ideologically divisive perspective. She’s not someone who’s views are mainstream in the nutritional community."

Tagtow said she is very happy to be brought on as executive director for the crafting of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

"It is truly an honor to be appointed as executive director and I'm thrilled to work with the outstanding staff at the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion for the USDA," she said. "To assist with spearheading dietary guidance and be connected with many important programs that provide healthy food access to the entire country is a thrill as a dietitian."

"I especially look forward to shaping key nutrition education messages and the launch of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans in 2015," Tagtow said.