Winter 2019

Awarding the Jean Mayer Prize

Tufts recognizes champions of healthy school meals.

By Julie Flaherty

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Brigadier General Allyson Solomon of Mission: Readiness, one of the organizations that received the award, spoke at the prize ceremony. Photo: Caitlin Cunningham

Long before Jean Mayer became the tenth president of Tufts University in 1976, he was a war hero who fought with French forces at the Battle of Dunkirk. After one skirmish with German soldiers, he walked for several days—with a bullet in his foot. So it’s no wonder that when Mayer decided to take on the challenge of creating the first school of nutrition in the country, he did it with determination.

Mayer was a brilliant bench scientist, said Friedman School Dean Dariush Mozaffarian, but he knew that nutrition is also about behavior, economics, and policy. “He really understood translating science into action,” Mozaffarian said. “That really to this day defines the Friedman School.”

On October 18, the Friedman School celebrated forty years of turning science into action by presenting the inaugural Jean Mayer Prize for Excellence in Nutrition Science and Policy to two people and two organizations that have embodied Mayer’s unwavering pursuit of a healthier world: retired U.S. Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the consumer advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), and the nonpartisan policy group Mission: Readiness. Harkin and Vilsack asked that their shares of the $100,000 award, sponsored by John Hancock, be given directly to charities they designated.

All the recipients worked to pass the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, a 2010 federal law that revamped the standards for the national school lunch and breakfast programs and increased access to healthy food for low-income children.

CSPI President Peter Lurie and Margo Wootan, its vice president for nutrition, accepted the award for their organization. Wootan said that the group spent fifteen years laying the groundwork for the law’s passage by gathering sponsors and diffusing opposition from the food and beverage industry. “But in the end thirty million children have healthier school lunches with more fruits and vegetables and soda, snack cakes, and candy bars are out of schools,” she said.

In accepting his award, Vilsack said that he and Mozaffarian have discussed how helping Americans eat healthier would bring down health-care costs, leaving much more money in the budget to fund education, defense, and other priorities. “The power is in us, but we have to be led, we have to be directed, we have to be educated,” Vilsack told faculty and students. “That’s what the science is all about. It’s giving us the road map. It’s giving us the directions. It’s making it easier for us to understand.”

Rear Admiral James A. Barnett and Brigadier General Allyson Solomon accepted the award for Mission: Readiness, a group of 750 retired military leaders who have warned that obesity and malnutrition have decreased the pool of healthy recruits for American armed forces. “Obesity really is the leading reason that young Americans are unable to serve,” Solomon said. “The national security of this country depends on encouraging healthy lifestyles.”

Harkin said that he and the other awardees have had some success in making schools healthier, but he is pained by new regulations that permit more sugar and salt and fewer whole grains in the school lunch program. “It’s up to us … to say that we’re not going to backslide on this progress that we have made toward a healthier nation,” he said. “Schools should be a sanctuary for our kids, not just another marketplace for hawking junk and sugary foods and drinks.”

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