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Farm Bill Should Ensure a Healthier America. Here's How.
May 23, 2013

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.


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