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Farm Bill Should Encourage Healthier Diets

By Caroline Trapp, M.S.N., C.D.E.

This opinion piece was printed in the Detroit News on June 1, 2011

The term “specialty crop” sounds like it might refer to starfruit, pumello, or another exotic fruit that looks alien next to the more mainstream grocery store produce offerings.

You wouldn’t think of apples, cherries, and cucumbers as specialty crops. But according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, fruits and vegetables are specialty crops. Maybe that helps explain why such a tiny fraction of agricultural subsidies supports these healthful foods.

As a nurse practitioner specializing in the care of people with type 2 diabetes, I find current agricultural policy extremely disturbing given the state of our nation’s health. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, has an opportunity to help reform this legislation.

Under the current Farm Bill, the least healthful foods often are cheaper than the foods we should be eating—foods low in fat and high in fiber. Instead of encouraging Americans to eat more apples and asparagus, the federal government heavily subsidizes the production of meat and dairy products, making these high-fat, high-cholesterol foods widely available and affordable.

The figures are staggering. In recent history, more than 60 percent of agricultural subsidies have directly and indirectly supported meat and dairy production. Less than 1 percent has gone to fruits and vegetables. This isn’t helping farmers or families. The vast majority of subsidies go to huge agribusiness corporations that are already making millions by producing foods that are terrible for our health.

Based on the most recent figures compiled by the Michigan Department of Agriculture, Michigan ranks in the top 10 states in the country when it comes to the production of a wide range of specialty crops—including apples, tart cherries, sweet cherries, blueberries, cucumbers, and edible dry beans. Michigan is a leading producer of the kinds of foods Americans need to eat more often, the foods that the U.S. Department of Agriculture says should compose at least half of every American’s plate.

But instead of putting their money where their Dietary Guidelines are, the U.S. Department of Agriculture continues to have trouble saying “no” to the meat industry. As a result, the consumption of meat and cheese has increased dramatically, raising chronic disease rates and causing health care costs to skyrocket. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 30 percent of Michigan’s residents are obese and about 9 percent suffer from type 2 diabetes. A recent study estimated that between 1998 and 2000, obesity-related diseases cost Michigan nearly $3 billion in health care costs. 

The health of our state and our entire country would benefit if agricultural policies were guided more by nutritional recommendations than corporate interests. I’ve seen firsthand how simple changes in diet—shifting to a diet high in low-fat, high-fiber plant foods—can lead to dramatic improvements in people with type 2 diabetes and obesity.

My patient—I’ll call him Mr. G—offers just one example.  Mr. G suffered from type 2 diabetes and had been taking oral medication, but it was no longer effective. His physician told him he would have to begin insulin injections, and Mr. G began to look for a new approach.

When he came to me, I implored him to make lifestyle changes, and he agreed that there was room for improvement in his diet, which consisted of what he called “bachelor” foods: roasted chicken from the grocery store, fast food, and cafeteria meals.

After two months of dropping meat and dairy products, he had lost 25 pounds and was able to stop two of his three oral medications. Two months after that, he had lost another 20 pounds and was able to stop medications for hypertension and depression.

Mr. G’s case demonstrates that the food environment we live in can make it difficult for us to make healthy food choices—and that the unhealthy foods we end up eating can cause a range of serious diet-related diseases.  

I hope Sen. Stabenow and other key legislators will ensure that the spending priorities of the 2012 Farm Bill support individual citizens like Mr. G instead of continuing to prop up wealthy agribusinesses.

Caroline Trapp, M.S.N., C.D.E., is a nurse practitioner specializing in diabetes care with Premier Internists in Southfield, Mich. She is the director of diabetes education and care for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.


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