The 2008 Farm Bill: A Disappointment in the Fight Against Childhood Obesity
The 2008 Farm Bill recently enacted into law by Congress is a dramatic disappointment. The number one cause of death in this country is chronic disease related to the over-consumption of fat and cholesterol—yet the new Farm Bill continues to support, in the main, the production of foods high in fat, sugar and cholesterol.
The Farm Bill affects American eating habits through the three pillars of nutrition policy: promoting a particular food environment, education, and incentives for healthy behavior. Any new programs bolstering the pillars of incentives and education will continue to be destabilized by the decrepit first pillar, which is dominated by subsidies for unhealthy foods. Subsidies for unhealthy food production designated in the 2002 bill—the most wasteful in Farm Bill history—are being continued under the 2008 bill. Given the higher cost of fresh fruits and vegetables, and the growing concern about child obesity, it is a travesty that this Food Bill does not prioritize a healthier food environment.
Here are some key aspects of the 2008 Farm Bill:
- There was one conspicuous victory for healthy food policy. The 2008 Farm Bill aids the fresh fruit and vegetable market through an incredible expansion of the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snacks Program. Incidentally, this program also gets fruits and vegetables to kids. Funding is more than $1 billion for 10 years. The program will include schools in all 50 states and Washington, D.C. Previous funding was for only 14 states, with a budget of $9 million per year.
- Food production policy continues to remain “fat and sugar” production policy. About 1 percent of Farm Bill payments go to fruit and vegetable growers. Most disturbing is the fact that 80 percent or more of the commodity payments benefit producers of meat, cheese, and junk food. Therefore, a reduction of overall subsidies is generally positive. The new Farm Bill decreases aggregate outlays for specific commodities in part by lowering the income limit for a farmer to be eligible for payments. The income limit was lowered from $2.5 million to $750,000. While a step in the right direction, this is far from the target income limit of $200,000 sought by the President and reform-minded Members of Congress.
- Congress eased planting restrictions on subsidized land until 2012 for selected fruits and vegetables destined for canning, and for only a small percentage of farm land in a handful of states. For the vast majority of agricultural land, this Farm Bill maintains that fruits and vegetables ‘must be destroyed prior to harvest’ or the land permanently loses eligibility for federal support. This provision illustrates well that Congress has yet to associate food production policy with Americans’ health.
- Funding for the Department of Defense Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program was maintained at a paltry $50 million per year. This is the only federal program that actively integrates fresh fruits and vegetables into school meals.
- Funds authorized for the USDA to purchase fruits and vegetables (mostly processed) and other high-fiber plant foods were increased. Since 2002, the budget for these foods has been $200 million per year. In 2008, the USDA will spend an additional $190 million, with slight annual increases each year through 2012.
Congress abstained on a perfect opportunity to fight the most serious public health problems of this country: childhood obesity and skyrocketing rates of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes. Precisely because of poor diet, today’s youth will live fewer years than their parents for the first time in history. With its override of the President’s veto, Congress has passed a Farm Bill that will provide food production subsidies that continue to focus on inputs for fatty, sugary, and processed foods. The price tag for this Farm Bill will average $60 billion per year. America spends $1 trillion each year on health care related to chronic disease. Half a decade is too long to wait. We urge Congress to make the best of every chance to promote a healthier food environment. Congress will have another chance to support good nutrition when the Child Nutrition Act comes up in 2009.
Founded in 1985, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine is a nonprofit health organization that promotes preventive medicine, conducts clinical research, and encourages higher standards for ethics and effectiveness in research.
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