Farm Bill Should Ensure a Healthier America. Here's How.
As the battle over the Farm Bill is shaping up, more people are awakening to the fact that we need to make the nation’s health a priority. The way to do that is by increasing access to the most healthful, nutrient-rich foods. Here’s Noah Gittell, director of government affairs for the Physicians Committee, to explain how:
Historically, around 63 percent of agricultural subsidies in the Farm Bill go either directly or indirectly (through animal feed crops) toward the production of meat and dairy products, the very products that are driving America’s heart disease, obesity, and diabetes epidemics. Less than 1 percent of subsidies go to fruit and vegetables.
The Farm Bill holds huge opportunities to improve America’s health. Although the current House and Senate versions of the bill largely maintain the current nutrition programs, the Senate has already taken one small step in the right direction. The Senate Agriculture Committee recently passed a Farm Bill that requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture to incorporate more beans and lentils into the National School Lunch Program. At $10 million, this is a small but important step for parents who are frustrated by the lack of alternatives to meat and cheese in school lunches. The language also requires a report in 2016 on the effectiveness of this approach, which could lay the foundation for the incorporation of more plant-based proteins into school lunches, similar to what were proposed in the 2010 Healthy School Meals Act, which we will work to reintroduce in 2015, when the Child Nutrition Act is again being considered.
Beyond reprioritizing our subsidy system, Congress should look at strengthening the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as “Food Stamps”).
A new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics says the effects of poverty on children’s health include increased rates of obesity and its complications. Reforming SNAP, which presently reaches one in seven Americans, to make healthful, nutrient-dense, low-cost foods more widely available would be a great way to address this.
Right now, SNAP places an equal value on all foods, giving grocers in low-income neighborhoods incentive to stock the most highly processed, shelf-stable (long shelf life) goods, like canned meat, string cheese, sugary drinks, and other junk food. But if SNAP incentivizes grocers to emphasize healthful foods and eliminate junk food, Congress would create the circumstances vulnerable communities need to eliminate food deserts—at no extra cost to taxpayers. Grocers already did this with success when the WIC program was tailored.
SNAP can drive good nutrition and better health for those Americans who have the least access to proper health care by promoting healthful options and limiting shelf-stable junk food. These changes would reduce the staggering long-term health care costs associated with diet-related disease. The Coburn Amendment #1000 will allow state governments to respond to the needs of their communities by ensuring that SNAP benefits are spent on food items that have strong nutritional value. Adding Amendment #1000 to the Farm Bill will ensure a healthier (and more fiscally sound) America.
Health needs to be front and center in all of Congress' considerations. Obesity, type 2 diabetes, and so many of the diseases we suffer from as a society can be alleviated—and in many cases prevented and reversed—through a change in diet, and the Farm Bill can give people tools to make that change.
Blocked Pipes? Check for a Big Mac Blockage
Pipes and arteries have one definite thing in common: They don’t work right when they’re stopped up. In Dorval, a municipality in Montreal, officials discovered that the local McDonald’s was discharging grease into the sewers. The sewers became clogged and Dorval jumped into action, hiring a contractor to fix the damage. They also filed a lawsuit against McDonald’s for the cleanup costs. Blocked sewers are a serious problem, but so are clogged arteries.
McDonald’s was the most-visited business in March in the United States. Nearly half of Americans bought something from under those golden arches. And nearly half of Americans ingested the same type of grease that congested Dorval’s sewers.
The saturated fat and cholesterol in many McDonald’s products can lead to heart disease, filling arteries with a hard white plaque and inhibiting the flow of blood. Sometimes fast-food customers need to find their own “contractor” to come in and fix the damage with bypass surgery. The cleanup costs are paid initially by insurance companies, with consumers footing the bill through raised rates and premiums.
Even though fast food is easy, cheap, and everywhere, we’re ultimately responsible for what we put down our tubes. There is no legal recourse for getting McDonald’s to reimburse patients for the arteries clogged by their Big Macs and Egg McMuffins. (And fast food doesn’t only affect hearts—the low-fiber content of most McDonald’s meals can result in other blocked plumbing, digestively speaking.)
You can bet that Dorval won’t let anymore grease into their sewers, and neither should we.
Gov. Chris Christie: Try Plant-Based Postop Prescription
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie just announced that he underwent weight-loss surgery earlier this year. Many people who struggle with obesity make the same difficult decision. I empathize with Gov. Christie’s desire to improve his health for himself, his family, and his constituents. In the letter below, I offer him postoperative advice on how a plant-based diet can help him maintain a healthful lifestyle. The same advice can also help those suffering from obesity forgo weight-loss surgery.
May 9, 2013
Gov. Chris Christie
Office of the Governor
PO Box 001
Trenton, NJ 08625
Dear Gov. Christie:
I understand that you’ve had a procedure to help your weight, and I want to congratulate you on this step. I also wanted to see if I could encourage you to consider some important dietary changes that we have been studying here in our NIH-funded research. We have found that a plant-based diet is remarkably effective in accelerating weight loss and making it permanent. Moreover, we have developed ways to make the transition easy.
As you may know, President Bill Clinton not only lost weight after adopting a low-fat vegan diet, he improved his heart health. Many people who follow a diet of fruits, vegetables, grains, and legumes experience significant health benefits, including lowered blood pressure, improved cholesterol, increased energy, and decreased risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Plant-based diets can also help prevent and reverse lifestyle diseases, including cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
To help you try this new healthful way of eating for three weeks, I’ve enclosed a copy of my book 21-Day Weight Loss Kickstart. This time frame is long enough to see results but short enough to make it approachable.
My nonprofit organization, the Physicians Committee, also partners with physicians, dietitians, and health educators to promote healthful lifestyles and food choices. Please let me know if you would like me to send updates about our nutrition education programs or about the latest research in diet and health.
I am also more than happy to work with you and your family on customized meal plans.
Neal D. Barnard, M.D.