Solving Our Fiscal Crisis—with Food
Food Drives Medical Costs
Health care costs in the United States are a major strain for individuals, businesses, and the federal government, and are worsening day by day. A major driver of medical costs is American eating habits. In 2010, the average American ate 188.8 pounds of meat, up from 123.9 pounds when the federal government started tracking America’s eating habits in 1909. That extra 65 pounds of meat, along with 30 extra pounds of cheese—per person per year—added since 1909, has been paralleled by a huge increase in obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and other devastating health conditions.
In 1995, the annual excess medical costs associated with meat-eating were estimated at $28.6 to $61.4 billion.1 Since then, this figure has grown dramatically, due to diet’s contribution to hypertension, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, gallstones, obesity, and foodborne illness.
Economically disadvantaged people are at special risk, with twice the prevalence of diabetes and a 19 percent higher prevalence of hypertension, compared with the highest-income population.2 Once considered “diseases of affluence,” these conditions are now most prevalent among poorer people.
Part of the reason is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps. The program was devised to supplement the foods available to needy people. As the largest nutrition assistance program in the United States, SNAP costs over $70 billion annually. 3
Unlike other federal food programs (e.g., the WIC program or school meal programs), which set certain health standards for included foods, SNAP is wide open. Retailers are free to accept SNAP funds for sodas, candy, doughnuts and other snack pastries, fatty meats and cheeses, energy drinks, and even luxury food items, when available. All are covered dollar-for-dollar with SNAP benefits. This is a lucrative deal for food manufacturers and retailers. However, the result is a distortion of the normal barriers to access unhealthful foods.
A better approach would allow retailers to accept SNAP payments for a simple set of healthful foods—whole grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits—analogous to the limited but healthful offerings of the WIC program. Such a program would improve overall nutrition and contribute to better health of participants. SNAP clients could add whatever foods they may wish to purchase with their personal funds. But the foods covered by SNAP would be nourishing foods that contribute to overall good nutrition.
By exclusively using foods from these four healthful groups—whole grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits—a SNAP recipient could choose oatmeal with raisins for breakfast, an apple for a snack, sautéed mixed vegetables over brown rice for lunch, spaghetti with tomato sauce for dinner, and peaches with sliced bananas for dessert. Other wholesome meal ideas include lentils with brown rice and broccoli, or a chilled pasta salad with sliced carrots, tomatoes, and lima beans.
These Healthy Basics are economical and allow families with tight budgets to purchase far more food for the SNAP dollar. By helping Americans to shift to more healthful foods, medical costs will fall and each food dollar will go much further.
1. Barnard ND, Nicholson A, Howard JL. The medical costs attributa¬ble to meat consumption. Prev Med. 1995;24:646-655.
2. CDC. CDC Health Disparities and Inequalities Report—United States, 2011. MMWR. 2011;60(Suppl):13-18.
3. U.S. Department of Agriculture. FY 2012, Budget Summary and Annual Performance Plan. Available at http://www.obpa.usda.gov/budsum/FY12budsum.pdf.