January 15, 2010

Food Failings Hit Congress Hard
A story in Politico describes the soul-searching on Capitol Hill prompted by the sad, sudden death of Rep. John Boehner's 46-year-old chief of staff Paula Nowakowski:

"For a lot of us, this was a mortality check," said Justin Harding, 34, who's often on call seven days a week as chief of staff for Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and frequently gets home from work after his kids have gone to sleep. "It's causing us all to reflect and sort of check our own circumstances."

Hill staffers say Nowakowski's lifestyle mirrored much of their own. She smoked, she didn’t always eat well, and she often worked seven days a week.

A toxic combination, to be sure. Stressful jobs that require long hours are certainly unhealthy. But it's only recently that you could add diabetes to the list of job-related illnesses:

After working on George W. Bush's 2000 campaign in Michigan and enduring a lifestyle of horrible food and little sleep, Roe developed Type 1 diabetes [ed note: the reporter meant Type 2 since Type 1 doesn't "develop" in adults]. He knew he was getting ill, but he ignored the signs until he collapsed right after Bush's Inauguration and nearly died. He was hospitalized for a week and barely avoided a diabetic coma.

Other Hill staffers have also developed diabetes and high blood pressure.

And there's more:

One longtime Democratic committee staffer and former staff director, who asked not to be identified, got his wake-up moment when he crashed his car driving back to the Capitol after working until 5 a.m. the night before.

"I must've fallen asleep at the wheel," the staffer said. "I banged the car into a curb and blew both tires."

Soon afterward, he discovered he had developed high blood pressure and was battling diabetes. He later bowed out of his position, taking a lower-key spot on the committee.

Meanwhile, Rep. Joe Barton blamed his heart problems on "eating too many chicken-fried steaks."

"In the long run, I'd say this lifestyle could certainly be detrimental to your health," said Rep. Kathleen Dahlkemper (D-Pa.), a freshman who previously worked as a dietitian and spoke with POLITICO by phone from the Blue Dog retreat on Tuesday. "I'm sitting here watching them bring out trays of snacks: cheeses and sweets. We just ate lunch, which was huge. And before that, we had a very big breakfast. I can't get over how much food they put in front of us."

...Those who worked around the clock on last year's stimulus package and, now, on the health care bill admit to getting the majority of their meals from the Capitol vending machines.

While Speaker Nancy Pelosi moved to upgrade the food choices in the House cafeterias, the value meal in Longworth still includes a fountain drink and choices like chicken wings, burritos and popcorn chicken salad.

The focus in the obesity epidemic is often on low-income communities and their food deserts and swamps. But for many farther up the income chain, the work environment is just as toxic. It's not just Congressional workers who indulge in vending machine lunches, pastry and candy-strewn conference room spreads and bottomless cups of soda.

I can only hope that Capitol Hill denizens realize why addressing obesity and the associated problems in the food system requires going far beyond demands of personal responsibility and virtue. They would, I imagine, agree that they eat what's available. And if it's junk that's available, that's what they eat -- they don't have a choice. And as a result that junk makes them sick.

It's an interesting experiment going on up there -- how much more do they themselves have to suffer before they take steps to clean up their own food environment? And if they do act to protect themselves (or even if they don't), one hopes they now see the value of fixing public school cafeterias if not the rest of American workplaces.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Type 1 diabetes is not the kind that results from obesity or sedentary lifestyle: Type 1 diabetes can't be characterized as a "job-related illness."

Blogger tlaskawy said...

Honestly, I think it's an error by the writer (I'll add a note, thanks!). Type 1 isn't something that "develops" so I would guess it's really adult-onset diabetes, which is caused by diet (among other things)...

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